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To Angry Voters, Washington Comes Out the Biggest Loser

Adam Nagourney

WHEAT RIDGE, Colo. — Jane Dempsey has been out of work since 2007, but she still has faith in the Colorado economy. What she has lost heart in, she said after casting her vote at the municipal building here Tuesday morning, are the public officials representing her in the nation's capital.

"There's too much fighting in Washington," said Ms. Dempsey, 59, after voting for the Democratic candidates for Senate and governor here, in two of the most contested races in the nation. "Everybody is trying to get their own way, and things are not getting done the way they should be getting done."

When asked if her vote would change anything, Ms. Dempsey glanced back at the empty sidewalk leading to the polling place. "I don't know," she said. "I really don't know."

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Ms. Dempsey's bleak view of the state of American politics resonated across the country on Tuesday, with voters heading in and out of polls expressing frustration and resentment against all things Washington: President Obama and Congress, Republicans and Democrats, big-money contributors and the Supreme Court decision that opened the financial floodgates for negative advertisements in states like this.

Whatever the health of the stock market or the encouraging drop in the unemployment rate, there was clear anxiety about the economy; Ms. Dempsey was not the only person who reported being unable to find a job. Optimism about the future was in short supply in this a-pox-on-all-your-houses climate. And the sense of pessimism appears greater than in the last big election: Nearly two-thirds of voters say the nation is on the wrong track, up from a little over half in 2012, according to exit polls.

"I feel like I'm in that class of people that's kind of getting left behind in this whirlwind," said Etrulia Byrd, 37, a waitress from Anchorage. "I'm in that economic class of people that works really, really hard and will probably never get too far ahead, barely makes it, and kind of gets punished for it."

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Despite all the negativity, a number of voters said they thought their votes mattered — in particular Republicans, who said that winning control of the Senate would curb what many described as the excesses of Mr. Obama. "The Democrats are spending too much money, Obamacare is a farce and needs to be repealed — or at least substantially repealed," said William Burke, 66, a retired lawyer who lives in Georgia and voted Republican.

But many voters said that after watching the infighting in Washington — and considering the fact that Mr. Obama is heading into the twilight of his presidency — they did not think that anything made much of a difference.

"They just don't seem to get anything done anymore," said John Miller, an independent in Iowa voting at the Red Oak Fire Department. "All they do is fight between each other and don't get anything done. So we — and I — need something different in there. Everything needs to change."

Shari Pizarro, 49, a Democrat who works as a waitress in St. Petersburg, Fla., said she voted Democratic but had few hopes for Washington — now or in the future. " I have no clue what's going on in D.C., but what I do know is that you can't really trust anyone," she said. "It's all screwed up no matter who's in the White House."

And in Racine, Wis., Jeffrey Kowalczuk, a 56-year-old account representative for a trucking company, seemed no less disillusioned than Ms. Pizarro after voting for Republicans in that critical state. "I'm just tired of all the fighting and bickering," he said. "We're all Americans. It's just getting old with all that stuff."

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The interviews came in an election in which many analysts were expecting a notably low turnout, reflecting the distress many people have voiced about the state of the government. Again and again, voters said they were exhausted after having been deluged with attack advertising on television, emails pleading for money and election pamphlets clogging their mailboxes. Such bombardments only reinforced their disenchantment with Washington, they said.

"There's no such thing as a good politician, I'm sorry," said Christi Miller, 43, an Obama supporter from Hot Springs, Ark. "They may start out that way, but I think once you get in and once you get painted with bribes, and you have to take care of the people who contributed to you. ... " Her voice trailed off. "They would care if they were actually running for office for the right reasons," she said. "They're running for office for money and power."

In New Hampshire, Jennifer Giles, 48, a Republican, said she thought candidates spent too much time worrying about their own futures. "I think people are much too focused on getting re-elected instead of doing their job," she said.

Some voters blamed both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue for the problem. "It's as dysfunctional as you probably can get," said Ken Berra, 60, a Democrat and lawyer in Kansas. "You have a president who unfortunately is a lightning rod — the Republicans, no matter what he does, don't like it."

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Kenneth Haynes, 60, offered a similar view as he came to vote at Luling Elementary School in Luling, La. "They're always calling each other the bad guy when they're all the bad guy," he said.

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Still, for the most part, views on who was to blame were, not surprisingly, divided based on party line. "I'm not a huge fan of Obama, but I do think he came in trying to compromise, and he was stymied," said Bronwyn Williams, 53, a Democrat and a professor of English at the University of Louisville, as he cast a vote in Kentucky, where Mitch McConnell held on to his Senate seat. Mr. Williams added, "I do think there are Republicans who are interested in good governance, but Mitch McConnell isn't one of them."

Warren Sloan, 45, a mechanic, voted Democratic in the Georgia election and said that although he blamed both parties for the battling, he faulted Republicans more.

"Everybody's doing their part," Mr. Sloan said. "But one thing I've noticed about the Republican Party — and I've listened to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity for years — is they can tell you what you're doing wrong, but they can't come up with a better solution."

Ann Halloran, 72, an independent who said she had voted for Republicans as she left the polls in Salem, N.H., called Mr. Obama "the driving force that has caused us to go in the wrong direction, and hopefully these people are going to be the ones that are going to take a step back."

The issue that the White House might have expected to boost Democratic candidates — the economy, which by many measures is in far better condition than it was even two years ago — may have in fact proved to be a negative for the president and his party. In preliminary exit polls of voters conducted by Edison Research, a large majority of voters described the national economy in negative terms and most said the United States economic system favored the wealthy.

"The economy is terrible," said John Madron, 61, who has been unemployed since 2009, after casting his vote in this community outside Denver. "Especially for manufacturing. I've been in manufacturing all my life, and right now, I'm unemployed. There's no positions throughout this country because it's all been outsourcing."

Mr. Madron said he voted for Mr. Obama when he first ran for president in 2008, but after that voted Republican.

The public resentment toward Washington went beyond the people in charge; voters in states that had been at the center of these battles said they had been overwhelmed by advertisements paid for by wealthy donors.

"Since they've allowed all the money in politics, it's gotten much worse," said Scott Hasson, 40, a photographer who lives in Denver. "Everyone says our vote matters, but until we can check the system and start taking a lot of that money out, I feel like it's just power, people with money have the power."

The exit poll showed most Americans disapproved of Mr. Obama, and that clearly hurt Democratic candidates. "Obama has not accomplished what he promised to the community," said Juan Neyra, 69, a retired security guard in Denver. He said he used to vote for Democrats, but this year had voted for the Republican Senate candidate, Representative Cory Gardner, who was challenging Senator Mark Udall, a Democrat. "And Udall supports Obama," Mr. Neyra said.