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Control of Congress hangs in balance as midterm tally continues

Republicans are confident they’ll have a majority in the House of Representatives, but conservative candidates underperformed nationwide as an expected red wave never materialized.

(CN) — The nation’s 118th Congress remains undefined on the morning after Tuesday’s midterm elections, but the immediate results were clear in at least one respect: there won’t be a GOP supermajority. 

While the Republican Party appears on track to wrest control of the House of Representatives, other conservative candidates for Congress and gubernatorial races largely underperformed. It was a surprising and somewhat embarrassing result for the Republicans, who failed to fully capitalize on President Joe Biden’s low approval rating at a time of contentious domestic issues not limited to persistent inflation, high gas prices, a porous border policy, a mental health crisis, cities awash in fentanyl and rising violent crime, soaring mortgage rates and a depleted housing stock.

And it was seemingly another rebuke of former President Donald Trump, who had likely hoped to use significant Republican gains in the midterms as a catalyst to launch his own reelection campaign as early as next week. Instead, candidates who embraced Trump’s "big lie" about the 2020 election were widely defeated, while those Republican candidates who did triumph Tuesday largely did so by distancing themselves from the former president. 

On the other hand, the election wasn’t an endorsement of Biden either. A Republican-controlled House will likely stonewall any of his legislative priorities and the Democratic Party will ultimately begin the next term weaker than before. 

“The Republicans most surely underperformed … I would even call it a political earthquake,” Jeffrey Bloodworth, professor of history at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, said in an interview.

Bloodworth said signs of Trump’s waning influence were evident in the weeks preceding the election, but polls failed to capture how independent voters would break toward the Democratic Party. 

“This should have been a Republican romp last night,” he said. “Instead, that was the best first midterm for a Democratic president since John Kennedy, which happened in the shadow of the Cuban missile crisis. And it’s not because Democrats are popular.”

Bloodworth said Democratic and independent voters were likely energized by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization in June that overturned the federal right to abortion, but Republicans likely suffered because of a lack of quality candidates.

Michael Bitzer, chair of the politics department at Catawba College in North Carolina, said candidates who champion the fringes of their parties may be losing their appeal.

“Candidate quality used to matter,” Bitzer said last week. “Then we became a polarized political environment and now party identification and party loyalty is pretty much all that matters. It’s all about which tribe you belong to and your loyalty to that tribe.”

If there was a bellwether race on the East Coast Tuesday, it was Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. There, two-term incumbent Democratic U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger, whose previous campaigns were won by margins of less than 2%, was facing a third test from a Republican challenger. 

In 2018, Spanberger was a 38-year-old mother of three and former CIA agent when she defeated a male Tea Party incumbent. Two years later she held onto the seat amid a challenge from a male state legislator, but the district was redrawn after the 2020 census to reflect new demographics and this year it included a handful of more conservative towns outside the Beltway. 

Spanberger was challenged by Yesli Vega, a former cop and county supervisor with two young children of her own and the endorsements of key Republicans including former President Donald Trump. Regardless, the incumbent won by nearly 4% of the vote, her largest margin of victory so far. 

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Yet across the state in Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, Republican Jen Kiggans beat Democratic incumbent Elaine Luria, while Republicans also flipped or picked up new House seats in North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, New York and Texas. Still, up and down the coast, Democrats held on to other House seats considered competitive, largely preventing their Republican counterparts from gaining a supermajority.

Still, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican who is expected to become speaker of the House in January, was emphatic about his party’s moderate gains. 

“The American people are ready for a majority that will offer a new direction,” McCarthy said in an early morning rally in Washington, nodding to frustration over the poor economy and increasing crime rates. “Republicans will work with anyone to deliver this new direction.”

Meanwhile, most of the evening’s drama was focused on the Senate, particularly races in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Ohio, Wisconsin and Arizona. 

In one of the most remarkable campaigns of the year, Democrat Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who suffered a debilitating stroke in May, defeated Trump-backed celebrity physician Mehmet Oz for an open Senate seat in Pennsylvania, one previously controlled by the GOP. 

“This campaign has always been about fighting for everyone who has gotten knocked down that has ever gotten back up,” Fetterman said in comments to supporters early Wednesday morning, while doubling down on his support of abortion rights, higher wages, universal healthcare, fair taxes and free elections. 

In Georgia, where former NFL running back Herschel Walker emerged as an unlikely Republican challenger to incumbent Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, the race is projected to advance to a runoff election. Polls in recent weeks indicated the contest was a tossup, in spite of allegations in October that Walker pressured or encouraged former lovers to have abortions, but a third-party candidate appears to have spoiled the race in the general election. 

“We are not sure if this journey is over tonight or if there is still a little work yet to do but … we know that when they're finished counting the votes from today’s election, we’re going to have received more votes than my opponent.,” Warnock told supporters Wednesday morning. 

Walker compared himself to hapless fictional race car driver Ricky Bobby from the movie "Talladega Nights" and told his own supporters to stay tuned, suggesting he would ultimately prevail. If a runoff election is necessary, it would take place Dec. 6. 

Republicans held on to Senate seats in North Carolina and Ohio, where attorney and author J.D. Vance, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, defeated Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan. As of Wednesday morning, it was too early to call other competitive Senate races in Arizona and Nevada, although the balance of power doesn’t seem likely to shift to Republicans.  

In the roughly one dozen gubernatorial races nationwide considered competitive, incumbents held their ground. Despite a late surge in the polls from Republican Lee Zeldin, incumbent Democrat Kathy Hocul will remain governor of New York. Republican incumbent Brian Kemp held off Democrat challenger Stacey Abrams in Georgia, with a greater margin of victory than he enjoyed in the same matchup four years ago. 

Republican Ron DeSantis, a rumored 2024 presidential candidate, cruised to reelection in Florida over Democrat Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor himself. In Texas, Republican Greg Abbott defeated Democrat Beto O'Rourke and in Wisconsin, Democrat incumbent Governor Tony Evers escaped with slightly more than 51% of the vote. 

“It's interesting to see Florida has consolidated into a pretty solidly Republican state at the state level — that’s a bright spot for the GOP — but the close races mostly broke for whoever the incumbent was and that tended to help the Democrats,” observed George Hawley, associate professor of political science at the University of Alabama and author of several books on the electoral process. “But [Biden] is not going to get much of anything done regardless of what happens in the Senate. With a Republican House, you can expect his legislative agenda to pretty much stall out and for a lot of his time to be focused on things like investigations.” 

Bloodworth agreed. 

“I generally see the next two years as being ugly partisan warfare,” he said. “Will Biden be impeached or not is the question. There is a certain wing of the Republican House that absolutely wants that and if Speaker McCarthy has a very narrow majority, he may have to give into that or risk losing the speakership. So we’re likely to see an impeachment based on extraordinarily flimsy grounds.”

But the 2024 election may be the Democratic Party’s election to lose. 

“If Democrats had gotten just crushed yesterday, there may have been a bigger push to replace [Biden] as the nominee in 2024 and since that didn’t happen, if he wants to be president again he’ll probably get the nomination,” Hawley said. 

There will be little room for error between now and then, said Bloodworth, who suggested the Democratic Party should nevertheless consider nominating a younger, less controversial presidential candidate. 

“Never underestimate the Democrats' ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but first they have to avoid a recession, or a prolonged, deep recession,” he said. “Then it’s about what they can accomplish in the next two or four years and if they can find another charismatic, relatively obscure candidate such as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama to pass the torch.”

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