Tuesday's election was epic. Republicans gained over 60 seats in the House and six in the Senate. They'll now occupy eight additional governors' mansions and at least 500 more seats in state legislatures.
The GOP picked up more House seats than in any election since 1938, leaving Democrats with the smallest number in the House since 1946. Republican gains in the Senate are roughly twice the post-World War II midterm average. When Mr. Obama took office there were 22 Republican governors: Now there will be at least 29.
Fifty incumbent Democratic congressmen lost, including 22 freshmen. An extraordinary nine senior Democrats with 18 years or more of service also went down, including three committee chairs: South Carolina's John Spratt, Missouri's Ike Skelton, and Minnesota's Jim Oberstar. Their offense was to back the Obama-Pelosi agenda.
Among the few vulnerable Democrats to survive were those, like Indiana's Joe Donnelly and Pennsylvania's Jason Altmire, who emphasized their opposition to policies like ObamaCare.
Some of the president's closest personal allies lost—including his pick-up basketball buddy, Alexi Giannoulias, who failed to keep the Senate seat formerly held by Mr. Obama. The GOP also beat many candidates whom Mr. Obama stumped for last week, like Virginia Rep. Tom Perriello and Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. Apparently the president's presence so close to the election reminded undecided voters why they were upset.
Democrats didn't suffer as many losses in the Senate as many predicted. This was largely because Democratic candidates either trumpeted their opposition to Mr. Obama's policies (West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin) or vilified their Republican opponents (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's final ad called his GOP competitor "pathological").
And Democratic losses could get worse in the next election. In 2012, three times as many Senate Democrats as Republicans face the voters—and many are from red states. Two more years of voting for the Obama agenda could do many of them in.
The public's deep dissatisfaction with the failed stimulus bill, uncontrolled spending and sweeping health-care reform gave rise to the tea party movement. This phenomenon provoked as much as an 8% increase in turnout, according to George Mason University Prof. Michael McDonald, who estimates turnout at around 90 million, up from 82 million in the 2006 midterm. Independents went 55% for the GOP, an 11-percentage-point gain from 2008 and a 16-point jump from the last midterm.
The damage to the White House and the Democratic Party is severe and will be long-lasting. On the eve of redistricting, the GOP controls more state legislative seats and chambers than it has since the 1920s.
In Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina, Alabama, Wisconsin and Minnesota, Republicans gained control of both legislative houses and will dominate redistricting, adding to the number of states where the GOP will draw lines that will boost their numbers in the House for the next decade. In other states like Colorado, Republicans gained a seat at the table by winning at least one chamber.
Tuesday's results mean Mr. Obama no longer has the luxury of jamming through legislation solely with his party's support. A week after saying it was "time to punish our enemies," the president will have to find ways to reach common ground with them. In yesterday's press conference, the president mentioned earmarks and energy policy as two places to start.
Republicans must not delude themselves: The voters didn't throw out the Democrats because they are enraptured with the GOP. The polling data suggest that many voters, while warming to the party, still remain nervous about it. Republicans are on probation. And whether they get off of it depends on whether they do what they said they would on the campaign trail.
Voters want Republicans to press for reform—regardless of the obstacles placed in their way by Mr. Obama. They understand Mr. Obama is president for two more years and retains the veto, but they will insist Republicans at least fight for change.
Republicans should be willing to compromise on details. Ronald Reagan was right when he said, "I'd rather get 80% of what I want than to go over the cliff with my flag flying." But voters will not tolerate compromise on fundamental principles.
Americans clearly want the new Congress to focus on economic growth and creating jobs in the private sector. Real spending reductions, an extension of the Bush tax cuts, ending earmarks, using the returns from the bailouts to reduce the debt, and turning Fannie and Freddie into private companies should all be at the top of the GOP's agenda.
Republicans must also tackle ObamaCare. They must try to repeal or defund it. But they should also present conservative alternatives—such as permitting Americans to buy health insurance across state lines, allowing small businesses to pool their risk to get the same discounts that big businesses get, giving the tax advantage of having insurance to the individual as well as the employer, and passing medical-liability reform to end junk lawsuits.
The GOP should also take up entitlement reform. Voters will not judge them to be fiscally serious if they avoid the issue.
All of this needs to be advanced by a party that is seen as hopeful and optimistic about America while remaining humble about itself. The next speaker of the House, John Boehner, hit just the right notes on Tuesday night.
President Obama brought on the worst thumping a party has received since the middle of the 20th century by offending America's conservative instincts. The public has spoken. Now it's up to the Republicans to deliver.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, November 3, 2010.