By Gabriel Debenedetti
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The sweeping Republican triumph in the midterm elections boosted the 2016 presidential prospects of three of the party's highest-profile governors, but Democrats on Wednesday said there also could be a silver lining for Hillary Clinton's White House hopes.
The broad Democratic losses could give the former secretary of state a chance to take over the role of party leader from a wounded President Barack Obama and sharpen her image as the Democrats' 2016 savior. The results were widely seen as more of a referendum on questions about Obama’s leadership rather than a sweeping rejection of Democratic policies.
But the Republican successes also could help launch presidential campaigns for Governors John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who won tough re-election battles, and Chris Christie of New Jersey, who campaigned nationally for the party as head of the Republican Governors Association.
With Tuesday's elections out of the way, the political spotlight quickly turns to the 2016 race. Clinton is the clear Democratic frontrunner, while at least a dozen possible Republican contenders are pondering a run.
Clinton's allies said Republican control of both chambers of Congress for the first time since 2006 would give her an opportunity to draw distinctions with Republicans while distancing herself from Obama.
The task of creating some distance from Obama was simplified by the resounding nature of the Republican victory on Tuesday, said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf.
"People are not in love with the president today, nor should they be," he said. "It's going to be easier now."
And if Tea Party-backed conservative lawmakers like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, another potential 2016 contender, clash with the new Republican Senate leadership, Clinton could capitalize on any political fallout, allies said.
“Given the challenges of a Republican Congress and the president finding common ground, there is likely to be continued paralysis and frustration at the lack of activity in Washington to address pressing needs,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked in Bill Clinton’s White House. “By being out of office, (she) will have the ability to make clear she is not only someone with a big idea - but someone with a track record of getting things done.”
But while Clinton is a popular draw with Democrats on the campaign trail, the candidates she supported did not necessarily fare that well.
Of the 26 candidates Clinton either raised money for or appeared in public with, 12 won and 13 lost. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, with whom Clinton campaigned in early November, is headed to a runoff.
Among the unsuccessful Senate candidates Clinton appeared with in the closing days of the campaign were Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Michelle Nunn in Georgia, Bruce Braley in Iowa and Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky.
Also having served as Obama's secretary of state, Clinton won't always find it easy to distance herself from his image and policies.
Gleeful Republicans were quick to point out Clinton's failures and tie her to the Democratic losses.
"Today voters sent a message to Pres. Obama & Hillary Clinton, rejecting their policies & often, their candidates," tweeted Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, another likely 2016 contender.
The Republican National Committee issued a memo titled “Hillary’s Policies Were On The Ballot.”
For Republicans, victories in tough re-election races in the swing states of Wisconsin and Ohio boded well for Walker and Kasich, while Christie's RGA played a big role in several races that broke for Republicans.
“What was unexpected was how so many Republican governors won. The return of the blue state Republican governor is a story that came out of last night,” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden, in reference to the color associated with Democrats. Madden worked on the campaign of 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who lost to Obama.
Christie has used his RGA position to prove he is still politically viable after January’s Bridgegate scandal in New Jersey, during which officials close to Christie were accused of shutting lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge, causing big traffic jams, to punish a local mayor who had not endorsed Christie in the state election.
Christie's large fundraising hauls for the RGA's election campaign were complemented on Tuesday by high-profile victories in Democratic and swing states like Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Maryland, and Massachusetts.
Appearing on five morning television shows on Wednesday, a happy Christie swatted away questions about what the wins might mean for his national ambitions.
“It’s way off, and my view on all this is that my job this year was to elect Republican governors and re-elect Republican governors,” he said on CBS. He has raised $106 million for the group since taking over in November 2013, the RGA said.
Madden said the victories would be useful for Christie in proving his political value, if not necessarily in appealing to Republican primary voters.
Walker, meanwhile, won his third consecutive expensive and high-profile race in a Democrat-leaning state, while Kasich won by a 31-point margin in a state often considered the most important in presidential contests.
No senator who is considering a White House bid was up for re-election on Tuesday, and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the lone House of Representatives member seen as a likely candidate in 2016, easily kept his seat.
(Reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti; Editing by John Whitesides and Martin Howell)