No GOP ‘wave,’ but Republicans could still gain control of U.S. House

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WASHINGTON — Republicans fell short of their greatest ambitions for major gains in the U.S. House, with control of the chamber still in doubt early Wednesday.

Republicans are still likely to narrowly win control of the U.S. House, based on expert projections. But of 20 races rated by elections forecaster Inside Elections as true toss-ups, Democrats had won seven and none had been called for Republicans as of about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday. Republicans only needed to win two toss-ups to likely have a majority in the House.

If projections stand and Republicans take over, they would end two years of unified control of Washington by Democrats. The divided government would be unlikely to pursue the ambitious bills on climate, taxes, health care and other issues that Democrats passed in the first two years of President Joe Biden’s administration, and may see fights over usually noncontroversial bills like those to raise the country’s debt limit or keep the government open.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said around 2 a.m. from a ballroom in a Washington, D.C. hotel that he was confident the GOP would control the U.S. House during the next Congress. 

“Now let me tell you, you’re out late, but when you wake up tomorrow, we will be in the majority and Nancy Pelosi will be in the minority,” McCarthy said during the three-and-a-half minute speech. 

McCarthy said a Republican U.S. House majority would “offer a new direction” though he added that “Republicans will work with anyone who’s willing to join us to deliver this new direction that Americans have demanded.”

Early results are in line with historical trends for midterm elections, when the party opposite the president typically gains seats. This election was not likely to be one of the exceptions, with Biden carrying low approval ratings.

Still, Democrats outperformed expectations. Republicans did not inspire a wave election that would have given them a more comfortable margin in the House. 

Of three vulnerable House Democrats in Virginia, for example, Republicans defeated only one, Elaine Luria. Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton held on in districts considered slightly more favorable to Democrats.

In another sign of how far Republicans were from the decisive takeover they sought, Colorado U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a far-right member expected to cruise to reelection, had a surprisingly close race and actually trailed Democratic challenger Adam Frisch by 3 percentage points with almost 80% counted at about 11 p.m. Mountain time. 

Democrats are projected to hang onto competitive seats, including in:

  • Virginia’s 7th District (incumbent Spanberger won reelection).
  • Kansas’ 3rd District (incumbent Sharice Davids won reelection).
  • New Hampshire’s 1st District (incumbent Democrat Chris Pappas won reelection).
  • North Carolina’s 13th District (state Sen. Wiley Nickel defeated Bo Hines, a former North Carolina State University football player who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump.)
  • Ohio’s 9th District, a redrawn district that put 40-year incumbent Marcy Kaptur’s reelection in serious jeopardy. Kaptur turned back Trump-aligned GOP challenger J.R. Majewski.

Races still too early or close to call early Wednesday included:

  • Nevada’s 1st District (incumbent Democrat Dina Titus led by about 11 points with 50% of the vote counted).
  • Pennsylvania’s 17th District (Democrat Chris Deluzio led by 4.6 percentage points with more than 90% of votes counted).
  • Iowa’s 3rd District (incumbent Democrat Cindy Axne trailed by less than a percentage point with more than 95% counted).

Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic strategist and co-founder and partner of the bipartisan public policy firm Rokk Solutions, said around 10:30 Eastern Time Tuesday that Democratic losses appeared “manageable.”

Facing headwinds as the party in power during a midterm election, Democrats wanted to keep their losses to a minimum. 

“We were in a position where it was going to be damn near impossible for us to keep the House, and it was just a matter of how many it was going to be by,” he said. “Losing the House is bad. Losing the House by 30 is horrible.”

Key races like Spanberger’s and Seth Magaziner’s in Rhode Island that were potential Republican pickups showed there was “reason to be optimistic that this is not a wave,” he added. 

Still counting votes

The exact size of the Republican majority won’t be known until more races are called.

Some results may not be known for days. Others may see legal challenges, especially from Republican candidates who have repeated –— without evidence — Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was illegitimate.

In a closely watched Iowa race, Republican challenger Zach Nunn declared victory in his race against Axne.

“This race changes the course of America,” Nunn said in a speech Tuesday night.

As of midnight Central Time, Nunn led with 50.3% of the vote to Axne’s 49.7%, with 94% of precincts reporting. The Associated Press had not called the race. The state senator declared victory alongside fellow Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley and U.S. Reps. Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Randy Feenstra.

Axne had not conceded.

As of midway through the last day of voting, Tuesday, the election had generally gone smoothly. Administrators across the country reported only minor issues, typical of any Election Day.

Republicans in Maricopa County, the most populous in Arizona, where several key races were contested, asked a judge to extend voting hours. Problems with tabulating machines caused delays in about one-third of the county’s voting centers.

The margin of victory will be important for the prospects of the likely incoming GOP speaker, McCarthy, in succeeding with his agenda.

No matter how many House seats Republicans pick up, though, much of the GOP framework will still be unlikely to become law. Control of the U.S. Senate was unclear early Wednesday and could remain in Democratic hands, and Republicans will certainly be short of the 60-vote threshold needed to pass most measures in the chamber.

Even if both chambers flip to Republicans, Biden will have veto power.

Biden’s low approval ratings

Polls for months have shown more voters disapprove of Biden’s performance than approve. An NBC News survey early this month showed a majority, 53%, disapproved of Biden, with 44% approving.

With his poll numbers dragging, the president kept a relatively low profile in swing states over the campaign’s final weeks. He stumped for Democrats in his native Pennsylvania, a key battleground for the U.S. Senate, but otherwise generally stuck to blue areas.

In times of economic hardship, voters generally blame the party in power, and Democrats — despite passing laws to provide COVID-19 relief, spend $1.2 billion on infrastructure improvement, boost microchips manufacturing and curb climate change and lower prescription drug prices — couldn’t escape that this year, Mollineau said. 

“It’s really hard to tell people about how well things are coming through and all the things that you’ve done when they honestly feel that things aren’t going well,” Mollineau said. “Right now, what people are thinking about is high energy prices and high food prices.”

Biden held no public events Tuesday, but spoke by phone with Democratic political leaders. U.S. Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, who leads Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, the chairman of the Democratic governors’ campaign group, and Democratic National Committee senior adviser Cedric Richmond, a former House member from Louisiana, were among those who talked to Biden.

First Gen Z member

In Florida, voters sent the first Gen Z candidate to Congress, 25-year-old Democrat  Maxwell Alejandro Frost, who won with about 59% of the vote. The minimum age requirement to serve in the House of Representatives is 25. 

“History was made tonight,” he wrote on Twitter Tuesday night. “We made history for Floridians, for Gen Z, and for everyone who believes we deserve a better future.”

Frost ran in Florida’s 10th Congressional District — a solid Democratic seat –— after Rep. Val Demings left her district to run as the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio. 

Rubio won his reelection Tuesday night with about 56% of Florida votes, along with Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who won about 58% of Florida votes. 

Another Gen Z candidate, Karoline Leavitt, a Republican, did not win her race against Democratic incumbent Rep. Chris Pappas for New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District. Pappas kept his seat with 54% of the votes.

Leavitt, who is a former Trump press staffer, challenged Pappas in a toss up race.  

Virginia battles

In the several closely watched Virginia elections, Democrats kept six out of seven seats up for reelection, losing only one. Republicans held on to four of their seats and picked up a seat.

Spanberger, who flipped Virginia’s 7th Congressional District in 2018, kept her seat in a tight reelection campaign against GOP candidate Yesli Vega. With 95% of the vote counted around midnight Eastern, Spanberger had received nearly 52%.

In Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, Wexton kept her seat against GOP challenger Hung Cao, a retired Navy captain. She won 53% of the vote.

Kiggans defeated Luria with about 52% of the vote.

Luria, a member of the House Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, Attack on the U.S. Capitol, made a point of clearly conceding the race early in the night.

After she told supporters during her concession speech that she’d called Kiggans to offer a concession and supporters booed, Luria chastised them.

“Please don’t boo,” she said. “Because the success of this district depends on her success. And this was a hard-fought race. She won this election.”

Luria said she called Kiggans to congratulate her on her win and that her office would help her with the transition process. 

The district was made more Republican during redistricting following the 2020 census. 

Republican plans 

What exactly Republicans will do with the U.S. House under their control remain murky, though they did release a one-page outline of their goals in September. 

While it’s unclear what, if any, measures would get the bipartisan backing needed to clear the U.S. Senate and garner Biden’s signature, the plan was seen as House leaders’ promise to GOP voters. 

The first item on the plan says Republicans want to reduce government spending. 

House leaders, including McCarthy, have indicated the party may be willing to shut down the federal government or possibly push the country into a first ever default on its debt in order to win concessions from Democrats and the Biden administration. 

Other goals include addressing gun rights, overhauling Social Security and Medicare, and increasing funding on border security. 

Lawmakers would also have to pass the farm bill next year, which every five years sets policy and funding for agriculture. Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee signaled their opposition to making climate change and conservation programs a priority for farmers and ranchers. 

Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan during the proposal’s rollout at an HVAC factory in Monongahela, Pennsylvania said a GOP House would hold hearings on the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the origins of COVID-19 and various actions by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“We are committed to doing the investigations that need to be done,” Jordan said at the time. “After all, that is part of our constitutional duty, to do the oversight and make sure you, the country, we, the people, have the facts and the truth.”

House Republicans have also threatened to impeach U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas over the U.S.-Mexico border.

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Jacob Fischler, States Newsroom
Jacob Fischler, States Newsroom

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.

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Ariana Figueroa, States Newsroom
Ariana Figueroa, States Newsroom

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance.

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Jennifer Shutt, States Newsroom
Jennifer Shutt, States Newsroom

Jennifer covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include congressional policy, politics and legal challenges with a focus on health care, unemployment, housing and aid to families.

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