Republicans confident of House control as polls begin to close, but Senate control uncertain
The GOP is favored to win at least one chamber of Congress, shifting the balance of power in Washington, as voters cast ballots in the first major test of U.S. democracy since the Jan. 6 attack.
The balance of power in Congress was still in question Tuesday after after polls closed in much of the East and governors races in Florida, Massachusetts and several other states were called.
Despite nationwide anxiety, there were no reports of political violence or widespread problems at the polls in the first major test of the country’s democracy since the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. Localized problems with voting machines were reported in the Phoenix area and some other jurisdictions.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Florida Republican and potential 2024 presidential candidate, had his reelection called early in the onetime swing state.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was a White House press secretary under Donald Trump, won Arkansas’ gubernatorial race as one of several acolytes around the country who are expected to push the GOP further toward the former president’s corner.
Democrats picked up two governorships as Maura Healy and Wes Moore won races in Massachusetts and Maryland, replacing two of the nation’s few remaining moderate Republican officials — neither of whom were up for reelection.
Republicans, favored to take at least one chamber of Congress, were ahead in several key House races. But it was too early to make any sweeping conclusions or call races in battleground Senate races.
Democrats are hoping that alarms over democracy and the loss of nationwide abortion rights will help them preserve their 50-50 control of the Senate and also win several key governors races. But Republicans are bullish that inflation, crime and other day-to-day concerns, coupled with President Biden’s low approval ratings, will give their party an advantage.
History and public opinion polls favor Republicans, especially in the House, where Democrats currently hold 220 seats, just two more than the 218 needed for a majority. In midterm elections since World War II, the president’s party has almost always lost seats.
A GOP majority in the House would likely elevate Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican who now serves as minority leader, to the speakership he has coveted for years. It would almost certainly end the political career of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), one of the most consequential speakers in history.
Election forecasters expect Republicans to pick up between 12 and 30 House seats — a comparatively small haul by historical standards, but more than enough for a majority.
A larger GOP gain is possible: In the closing weeks of the election season, Republican campaign committees poured money into races in blue states such as California and New York, putting Democrats on defense in territory Biden won solidly two years ago.
But in areas the president narrowly won in some battleground or red states, some Democratic incumbents appear stronger, including Rep. Sharice Davids in Kansas and Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee.
“This is a very unique cycle,” said David Wasserman, a congressional forecaster for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “It’s not an anti-incumbent election. It’s a red-state-versus-blue-state split screen.”
Republicans may reclaim the House majority before California’s races are called, but the contests in the state will affect the size of the margin and the number of loyal allies McCarthy can depend on in his bid for the speakership
The two parties entered election day virtually deadlocked on the generic congressional ballot, with voters preferring Republicans by a 1-point lead in the latest polling average by FiveThirtyEight.com.
The Senate, which the Democratic caucus controls with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote, is harder to predict. That’s largely because several candidates who won Republican nominations with the backing of former President Trump and his supporters have struggled to gain an advantage over potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbents.
In Georgia, for example, former football star Herschel Walker has been locked in a tight race with incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. Tech investor Blake Masters in Arizona has consistently trailed incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly in polls, although the race remained close. And in New Hampshire, polls showed retired Army Gen. Don Bolduc consistently trailing Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan.
In Pennsylvania, Mehmet Oz, a Republican and well-known former TV personality who won Trump’s backing, trailed his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, through the summer, but the race has grown tighter in recent weeks.
Another marquee Senate race is in Nevada, where Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto faces a strong Republican challenger in former state Atty. Gen. Adam Laxalt.
The election comes just days after an attack on Paul Pelosi, the speaker’s husband, heightened fears of more widespread political violence as Trump continues to spread the lie that he won the 2020 election.
The former president has promoted candidates who have helped him amplify that rhetoric, and who in many cases have vowed to change election rules at the state and local level. Even before Tuesday’s election, several states passed more restrictive voting laws and saw local election officials replaced by election deniers.
More than 340 candidates who espouse Trump’s false election conspiracies are on the ballot for federal, state and local offices, according to a tally by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. That includes contenders for governor and secretary of state in Arizona and Michigan, who could upend how elections are run in those pivotal battleground states for the 2024 presidential race.
Elaine Kamarck, a longtime Democratic strategist who is now a Brookings fellow, said the election deniers have run on platforms that vary in potential disruptiveness.
“Changing your early-voting dates from 10 days out to five days out, I don’t think it is going to hurt our democracy terribly much,” Kamarck said. More troubling, she said, “are the changes to who can certify elections and the politicization of election certification.”
But even as Biden has argued repeatedly that democracy is on the line in this election, he has not been welcomed on the campaign trail by Democrats in some of the toughest races. Many voters blame him for the country’s high inflation, which for much of the year has been most visible at the gas pump.
Democrats tried to address the nation’s pocketbook anxiety, dubbing their signature legislative achievement of the year the Inflation Reduction Act. But the branding does not appear to have helped, in part because the various provisions —which included clean energy investments to combat climate change and efforts to reduce prescription drug costs for Medicare patients — did not make an immediate dent in rising prices.
“If you’re going to name it this, you better hope inflation is reduced, or you’re going to wear it. And now they’re going to wear it,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist and former aide to Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell.
A loss of control of either chamber of Congress could greatly imperil Biden’s agenda. Many Republicans say they plan to investigate him and his Cabinet secretaries, and some have threatened impeachment. McCarthy has also suggested that aid for Ukraine could be curtailed.
Losing control of the Senate would mean Biden would no longer be able to count on confirmation of his appointments to federal courts and executive agencies.
Republican control of the House would probably elevate McCarthy, but his hold on a potential speakership could be weak because his party is internally divided.
Lawmakers including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, whose conspiratorial rhetoric once put her at the fringes of the GOP, could see their clout elevated as McCarthy tries to prevent internal revolts. That raises the potential for a return to the brinkmanship that risks more government shutdowns and potential defaults on the nation’s debt.
Congress will need to raise the ceiling on the federal debt soon — a step that’s routine, but always politically fraught. Failure to increase the debt limit would risk causing the federal government to default on its obligations, a step that could cause financial chaos.
House Republicans appear increasingly likely to try to leverage the debt ceiling to extract concessions from Democrats, possibly including cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
Democrats may use the lame-duck session between now and January, when a new Congress is sworn in, to head off some of the fights.
“Part of what the midterm fallout means for the president depends in part on how large the House majority is for Republicans,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
“If the House majority is 15 or 20 seats ... it’s going to be difficult,” Hudak said. “He’s going to be investigated endlessly, they’re going to be passing a lot of legislation that he’s forced to veto, et cetera. But if the House majority is narrower, in the single-digit range, I think the chances of Republicans speaking with a unified voice is going to be quite limited.”
Even if Republicans control both chambers of Congress, they’re unlikely to be able to pass major legislation of their own except in situations where a must-pass measure like the debt ceiling gives them leverage. The House is more conservative than the Senate and could pass legislation without any Democratic support. But Senate rules require 60 votes for most action, and Republicans almost certainly will not come close to that number. Plus Biden still has a veto pen.
Many presidents have absorbed big midterm losses and come back to win second terms, in part by campaigning against the opposition party’s obstinance. But a large loss could put more pressure on Biden — the oldest president in history, who turns 80 this month — to forgo a reelection campaign. He has said repeatedly that he plans to seek reelection.
Pelosi has remained mum on her future, and it’s unclear whether — or how — the attack on her husband might factor into her decision on whether to retire or seek to lead House Democrats for another term.
If this term is Pelosi’s last, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) is on the list of potential successors as the Democratic leader, but Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) has long been seen as the likeliest choice. Schiff also could opt to run for Senate in 2024, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) unlikely to seek reelection.
Times staff writer Seema Mehta in Los Angeles and Arit John in Phoenix contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.