WASHINGTON (AP) — The 2016 presidential race was about the new Republican-controlled Congress even before the polls closed Tuesday night.
As the GOP rout became clear late on election night, would-be Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton found herself with a ready-made foil in the Republican-led Congress that begins next year just as a few high-profile senators seized on their new status as a springboard into 2016.
Some Republican governors already have begun to try to distance themselves from unpopular congressional leaders in both parties.
"I think governors make much better presidents than members of Congress," said Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis., who just won his third election in four years and is contemplating a presidential bid.
Republicans are facing their most unpredictable presidential primary campaign in a generation, while Clinton remains the overwhelming favorite for Democrats who are reeling from heavy losses in last week's midterm elections.
Republicans successfully tied Democratic candidates to President Barack Obama at every turn, winning Senate races in Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina, usually competitive states in presidential elections. Even before polls closed, ambitious GOP began casting Democrats' struggles as a referendum on Clinton as well as Obama.
"In many ways, she was the big loser on Tuesday because she embodies everything that's wrong with Washington," Walker told NBC's "Meet The Press" on Sunday, echoing the attacks of his ambitious GOP colleagues in recent days.
As many as a dozen Republicans are considering presidential runs after a dominant midterm performance that many consider the first step in retaking the White House.
Strategists report an early burst of activity among prospective candidates, who are taking initial steps to create super political action committees and nonprofit organizations that would allow them to begin raising campaign money even before they announce their intentions.
While it wasn't technically a campaign ad, the 2016 primary season saw its first television special over the weekend.
An hourlong documentary featuring retired brain surgeon Ben Carson, a conservative favorite little known on the national stage, ran in more than two dozen states Saturday and Sunday. The program, which likens Carson to former President Ronald Reagan at times, was produced by Carson's business manager, Armstrong Williams, who noted that Carson didn't pay for the nationwide run that included states such as Iowa, South Carolina and Ohio.
"Make no mistake, he's seriously thinking about running," Armstrong said.
Also thinking of running are at least three first-term senators who will begin next year in the Senate majority: Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Some have adopted a bipartisan tone in the midterm's aftermath, although the likelihood of continued Washington gridlock poses political risks for the trio as Congress' approval ratings hover near all-time lows.
"I want to get things done," Paul told The Associated Press in an interview, although he was among the first to attack Clinton last week, casting his party's midterm success as a referendum on Clinton as much as Obama.
Paul planned to meet with advisers this coming week to map out his plans for the next few months. He insists he will not make a final decision about the 2016 presidential contest until next spring.
"There's a lot of personal gnashing of teeth with family trying to decide if we're willing to go through this," Paul said.
The primary season takes another big step forward later this month when the Republican Governors Association meets to elect a new chairman in Florida.
All eyes will be on Walker, with the outgoing chairman, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, passing the reins to another ambitious governor. Advisers suggest that a run for the post may signal disinterest in a 2016 presidential run; fundraising logistics make it very difficult to do both.
As governors gather in Florida, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush headlines a Washington conference for his education foundation that seems certain to draw strong 2016 buzz.
GOP operatives and donors report that Bush is beginning to signal stronger interest in a presidential run, although some suggest he needs to act relatively quickly.
"If he waits too long he'll start to lose his advantages, the built-in network," Republican strategist and former Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber said. "Those people are not going to wait forever."
While Republicans governors could use Washington dysfunction to their advantage, a GOP-led Congress also gives Clinton an easy target if party leaders try to repeal Obama's health care law, produce budget plans that cut money for children and the elderly, or become mired in gridlock. Obama often railed against the GOP-led House in his 2012 campaign and President Bill Clinton effectively used divided government to his advantage in the 1990s.
Hillary Clinton's advisers are assessing the results of the election and looking at what another campaign might entail.
She appeared at nearly four dozen political events in 19 states during the fall campaign, offering a glimpse of a possible campaign message: She would be an advocate for distressed families and offer a steady hand for a government that has been paralyzed by gridlock.
Clinton has said she expects to make a decision around the beginning of the year but remains under pressure to announce her intentions.
Some Democrats, however, say there's little incentive for her to rush in given her dominant role.
"She has to let the dust settle. There is no reason for Hillary Clinton or any other candidate to declare their intentions anytime soon," said Donna Brazile, a longtime adviser to the Clintons.