How big was Tuesday’s devastating repudiation of President Obama, his policies and his party?
Republicans picked up seven Democratic Senate seats Tuesday, are well ahead in Alaska, awaiting absentee ballots, and are poised to add a ninth senate seat in a Louisiana runoff on Dec. 6, since three GOP candidates received a combined 55.8% of the vote Tuesday to Sen. Mary Landrieu ’s 42.1%. This could give incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a 54-member caucus.
Speaker John Boehner saw his party add at least 16 House seats, giving Republicans 249 members, the most since they had a 270-member GOP majority in 1929.
Republicans may have gained at least three governorships (with Alaska still undecided as we went to press), for a total of 31, as Democrats lost Arkansas, Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts. The GOP won an additional seven state legislative chambers, giving the party 67 of the country’s 99 state houses and senates, with two chambers still undecided.
The GOP’s victories were bigger and more numerous than the final polls predicted as undecided voters expressed their disgust with Mr. Obama’s six-year liberal experiment gone wild. For example, the Real Clear Politics poll average Monday showed Sen. Mitch McConnell with a 7.2% lead; he won by 15.5%. It explains why Thom Tillis won in North Carolina though he was outspent by Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan by $23 million to $9 million. It’s why Republican Ed Gillespie is barely behind Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner as the vote is canvassed, though Mr. Warner outspent him by $16 million to $7 million and led by nearly 10% in Monday’s RCP average.
What’s next? Republicans shouldn’t rest on their laurels or reach for last year’s congressional playbook. Voters expect constructive action, not obstructionism. They want Washington to work and lawmakers to get things done. Their expectations are low because their distrust of politicians is high. So surprise them. The rewards will be great if the GOP shows it has a governing agenda.
Republicans should go big, pushing a comprehensive reform agenda even if the president objects. Republicans should try working with Mr. Obama to forge legislative compromises. But if he refuses to engage, Republicans should move, although they must be willing to defend their proposals with conviction.
As for the agenda, Republicans should not repeat Mr. Obama’s mistake of ignoring issue No. 1—the economy. Measures to increase jobs, boost growth and expand opportunity must be given early priority.
The GOP should begin with ideas that have Democratic support, like approving the Keystone XL pipeline or relieving Mr. Obama’s regulatory excesses affecting jobs, utility bills and small businesses.
Corporate tax reform might be another arena for bipartisanship. For instance, Sens. Rob Portman and Rand Paul believe there is Democratic support for allowing U.S. companies to bring home foreign profits without them being fully taxed a second time. Republicans also should move quickly on some of Mr. Obama’s priorities they support, like granting any president the authority to negotiate trade deals by guaranteeing up-and-down votes in Congress and patent reform.
There must be a measure repealing ObamaCare, even though the president’s veto will be sustained. Republicans should respond to a veto with regret, not fury, and with bills that kill some of ObamaCare’s onerous provisions, like those that cause people to lose their plans or doctors.
These should be coupled with reforms that push health care toward the patient-centered model Republicans prefer. Some Democrats will support these ideas and there is a limit to how often Mr. Obama can wield his veto without becoming the President of No.
Yet Republicans should not seek confrontation for its own sake even if Mr. Obama remains stubbornly antagonistic. The GOP’s brand was damaged when it shut down the government last year with a maneuver that had no chance of success—just as Mr. Obama will suffer if he chooses the executive branch version of obstructionism.
Fortunately, Messrs. Boehner and McConnell have worked for months on an action plan in the event voters gave them the majority. This planning—reflected in their op-ed nearby today—should make the process of coordination between the two chambers better.
Mr. Obama may continue his disengaged, my-way-or-the-highway approach, but things have changed in the past six years. The president has no good will among congressional Democrats. If he remains obstreperous after Tuesday’s trouncing, it could guarantee that his party enters 2016 even more damaged.
Voters delivered messages Tuesday to both the president and to the GOP. Republicans would be wise to heed their message first and better.
A version of this article appeared November 6, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Republicans Won Big, So Now Go Big and online at WSJ.com.