On the day after Election Day, Republicans find themselves limping toward House control after disappointing midterm elections that saw their predicted wave of wins evaporate and left a path for Democrats to keep the Senate.
The outcome was all the more surprising because concerns about stubborn inflation and crime had been the dominant theme with voters before Tuesday. Yet again polls failed to capture the mood of a restive electorate that wasn’t just preoccupied with the economy and the price of gas at the pump.
Democratic messages about abortion rights resonated with Americans and they largely rejected the political extremism espoused by former president Donald Trump and the candidates he endorsed.
Democrats won a significant victory with John Fetterman taking a previously GOP-held Senate seat in Pennsylvania by defeating celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz. But they were unable to flip the Senate seat in Wisconsin, where networks projected incumbent Republican Ron Johnson won over Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes.
While Democrats have reason to rejoice, the fate of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda still hangs in the balance and the prospect of government gridlock looms. GOP majorities in one or both congressional chambers would lead to intensified partisan battles including a possible debt-ceiling fight. The Biden administration would also face an onslaught of investigations from subpoena-wielding Republicans.
There was record early turnout in places like Georgia, one of several states that will determine whether Democrats can hold off the GOP from taking over both chambers of Congress. The result there is tight and will likely will have to be resolved in a run off on Dec. 6, another reflection of a polarized nation.
Republicans now will have to flip two other Senate seats to secure control of the chamber. As of early Wednesday, in addition to Georgia, races in Arizona and Nevada where Democrats are the incumbents were also too close to call.
As things stand, Republicans have won 200 House seats, compared to 173 for Democrats. At least 218 are needed to claim a majority. It could take days to know the balance of power as officials count mail-in ballots in dozens of close races. And some may be subject to recounts and court challenges.
The results send a mixed message from voters, who are not just worried about the slowing economy but also about the health of the country’s democracy. Two-thirds of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, but candidates who denied the validity of the 2020 election lost most of their bids to oversee future votes.
House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy is in line to become speaker with a Republican majority, and if he succeeds he will have the thankless job of keeping his fractious caucus in check. Kentucky Representative Thomas Massie, a frequent critic of his GOP leaders, said a narrow majority is good for conservatives. “If you have a 218 majority, then everybody’s vote counts.”
Democrats were able to buck history by holding off a wave from the opposition. Since World War II, the party holding the White House has, on average, lost 26 House seats and four Senate seats. Barack Obama’s Democrats lost 63 House seats in 2010 and Donald Trump’s Republicans 40 House seats in 2018.
Polls and independent forecasts for the midterms had fluctuated widely over the past several months as voters grappled with inflation near a 40-year high and digested a Supreme Court ruling that ended the nationwide right to abortion.
In other closely watched contests, JD Vance defeated Democrat Tim Ryan to keep an Ohio Senate seat in Republican hands, while incumbent Arizona Democratic Senator Mark Kelly was leading Republican Blake Masters. In Wisconsin, Johnson, a Republican, was leading his Democratic challenger, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, with most of the votes counted. In Nevada, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto is facing a stiff challenge from Republican Adam Laxalt, who currently holds a slight lead.
A clear victory for the GOP came in Florida where Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, a potential rival to Trump for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination, and Senator Marco Rubio handily won re-election. GOP candidates also flipped three of the state’s House seats that had been held by Democrats as well as another created in redistricting.
Democrats’ hopes for tax increases on the wealthy and corporations would be dashed should Republicans take at least one chamber. Prospects diminish for antitrust legislation aimed at big tech companies or a windfall profits tax on oil companies. Government shutdowns and a standoff over a US debt default also grow more likely.
And Republican control of the Senate would give the party a veto over Biden’s nominations to fill top jobs at agencies and in the federal judiciary.
Biden closed the cycle with an address warning of the danger posed to democracy by a slew of Republican congressional candidates who deny the 2020 presidential election outcome and urged Americans to reject Trump’s “big lie” refusing to recognize the defeat. He drew a direct line from last year’s Capitol insurrection by Trump supporters to a hammer-wielding assailant’s attack just before the midterms on House Speaker Pelosi’s 82-year-old husband.
But Trump will not be going away. He has planned a Nov. 15 event at his Mar-a-Lago estate when he is expected to announce another bid for the White House.