"I'm not opposed to doing business with the president," McConnell said. "He's going to be there two more years. If we can find ways to make some progress for the country, we ought to do it."
McConnell's counterpart in the House, Speaker John Boehner, also finds his hand strengthened by Tuesday's results, having added at least 10 seats to his Republican majority. Once beset by rumors he would retire or be dethroned, Boehner now faces no known challenger for the speaker's gavel. On the one hand, a larger majority will give Boehner more room to maneuver—he will be able to pass bills while losing more Republican votes. But on the other hand, many of his new members will be conservatives from deep-red districts, who may be disinclined to go along with any bipartisan compromises proffered by the Senate.
Why did Democrats lose? Exit polls pointed to an electorate that strongly resembled that of 2010, when the older, whiter electorate that favors Republicans turned out enthusiastically, while the young, non-white electorate that favors Democrats largely stayed home. The working-class vote—defined as voters making less than $50,000 per year, a crucial demographic for Democrats—was only 37 percent of the electorate, comparable to 2010, when it was 36 percent. Those voters favored Democrats by a 14-point margin; the party generally wins when the margin approaches 20 points. Look for many Democrats to argue that the party must put more emphasis going forward on a populist economic message.
Plenty of other factors conspired against Democrats. Obama's popularity has dropped steadily for the last year as he faces crisis after crisis—some impossible to anticipate and some of his own making, from the rollout of Healthcare.gov (though, liberals note, opposition to Obamacare was not a major theme of many Republican campaigns) to the Islamic State insurgency, the border crisis, and the Ebola epidemic. Democrats' expensive, much-touted effort to expand the midterm electorate through field organizing in targeted states proved unavailing—indeed, it was Republicans, not Democrats, who surprised the pundits by doing better than polls had forecasted across the map. Late Tuesday, Democratic recriminations had already begun to fly, with Reid's staff openly blaming the White House for Senate Democrats' losses in The Washington Post.
But Republicans also earned their win by capitalizing on their opportunities, rather than squandering them as they've often done in recent years. The GOP establishment rallied early to beat back Tea Party primary challengers, spending tens of millions of dollars but largely succeeding. No Senate incumbent lost a primary, and open-seat contenders viewed as fringe candidates were defeated or pushed out of contention across the board. The only high-profile primary defeat was the shocking June loss of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. In the place of past years' memorably batty GOP nominees, from Sharron Angle in 2010 to Todd Akin in 2012, was a polished, palatable class of Republicans whom voters could envision representing them in Washington.
The new Republican senators are quite conservative, perhaps more so than any previous class, but they are capable of sounding reasonable and staying focused on issues voters care about. The question yet to be answered is one of tactics: When these new players come to Washington, will they seek pragmatic accommodation? Or will they team up with the likes of Cruz, putting new faces on the same old gridlock?