(TNS) Republicans secured the majority in the U.S. House on Wednesday, boosting the party’s ability to stymy President Joe Biden’s agenda even though the midterm results stop well short of a mandate from the electorate.
It took more than a week for The Associated Press to determine the GOP had won the 218 seats necessary to control the chamber. The belated milestone underscored Republicans’ underwhelming performance in an election cycle when economic conditions, historical precedent and a sour national mood had been expected to work to their advantage.
The GOP‘s gains mean Biden will contend with a divided government as he enters the latter half of his term. Democrats have cemented their control of the Senate with 50 seats, and could bolster their ranks further if Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock wins reelection in Georgia’s runoff race next month.
Republicans had projected confidence of a “red wave” that would yield at least a dozen House seats. But Democrats’ surprising strength, powered largely by voter outrage over the Supreme Court’s reversal of federal abortion protections, blunted the GOP’s edge to single digits.
The GOP clinched its majority with a victory by Rep. Mike Garcia, who defeated Democrat Christy Smith in a northern Los Angeles County district that Biden won by 12 points two years ago. The race was called by the AP, although official results will take longer.
“Republicans have officially flipped the People’s House! Americans are ready for a new direction, and House Republicans are ready to deliver,” House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy said on Twitter soon after the news was official.
Biden congratulated McCarthy and pledged a willingness to collaborate with the other party, reiterating his call to move past “political warfare.”
“The American people want us to get things done for them,” he said. “They want us to focus on the issues that matter to them and on making their lives better. And I will work with anyone — Republican or Democrat — willing to work with me to deliver results for them.”
A Republican House is widely expected to clash with Biden on policy, including potential standoffs over raising the debt limit and providing more aid to Ukraine. GOP members have also threatened impeachment proceedings against the president or his Cabinet members and have vowed to launch multiple investigations, particularly into allegations against Hunter Biden, the president’s son.
The smaller size of the GOP conference, though, heightens its ideological fissures. Many of the incoming members from deep-red districts hail from the far right wing of the party loyal to former President Donald Trump, even as party figures grow increasingly vocal about Trump’s drag on the party. A bare-bones majority means that a single or a small handful of defectors can have an outsized impact on the GOP’s agenda.
McCarthy, who has doggedly pursued the speakership, has played down disappointment that his party’s pickups weren’t greater.
“Remember, in the House, they don’t give gavels out by ‘small,’ ‘medium’ and ‘large.’ They just give you the gavel,” McCarthy told Fox News’ Jesse Watters, referring to the symbol of House control. “And we’re going to be able to govern.”
The narrow margin leaves McCarthy little room for error as the Californian seeks the votes to become the next speaker. While McCarthy had assiduously worked to strengthen alliances with the party’s most conservative flank, he nevertheless faced open hostilities from the right after he led the party to a lackluster midterm showing.
GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, one of the staunchest Trump allies, blasted McCarthy on Twitter last week as “FLIGHT over FIGHT when the chips are down. He is not a Speaker for these times.”
McCarthy cleared the first hurdle for the job Tuesday after House Republicans resoundingly voted for him to be nominated speaker. But with roughly 30 conservatives backing a challenge by Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, it is clear that McCarthy does not yet have the 218 votes necessary to cement his place as top House leader.
“My bid to run for speaker is about changing the paradigm and the status quo,” Biggs said prior to the vote. “Minority Leader McCarthy does not have the votes needed to become the next speaker of the House and his speakership should not be a foregone conclusion.”
The speaker of the next congressional session will officially be determined by a vote of the entire House in January.
The current speaker — Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco — agreed in 2018 to step down from House Democratic leadership by the end of 2022. But Pelosi said on CNN this week that some members had asked her to consider running again; until she announces her plans, the jockeying to lead the Democratic Caucus remains in limbo.
Republicans had reason for high hopes for most of this election cycle. Large majorities of voters believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, polls have shown, an indicator that theoretically should bode well for the party that does not hold the White House. Persistent inflation gave them opportunity to run on the economy — an area where people tend to trust the GOP over Democrats.
Biden, with his middling approval ratings, threatened to be an albatross for Democrats. The only times since after World War II that the party that controlled the White House bucked the historical precedent and gained seats in Congress were in 1998 and 2002, when the presidential approval ratings for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were in the 60s. Biden, by contrast, is stuck in the low 40s.
The fact that Democrats performed so well — not picking up seats, but avoiding significant losses — makes this midterm election even more of an anomaly, said Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst with Inside Elections, a nonpartisan campaign newsletter.
“For the first time, it really does feel like midterm voters were willing to get beyond their dissatisfaction with the president,” he said.
Republican underperformance was most apparent in their failure “to make inroads into places that they were hoping would be most competitive,” Rubashkin said. “And so that’s what a very, very narrow Republican majority looks like — they were unable to claw back the suburbs. And they were unable to make New England Republicans a reality again. And they were unable to dislodge quite a few strong Democratic incumbents in places that they had hoped they could.”
Other losses were self-inflicted. In one Washington state district, the GOP incumbent, Jaime Herrera Beutler, was knocked out in the primary by Joe Kent, a far-right political novice who railed against her vote to impeach Trump. Kent ended up losing to Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez in the general election for a seat that was once considered solidly Republican.
While many analysts acknowledged they were taken off guard by the midterm results, Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg said there was evidence back in the spring that his party would overperform. A confluence of events — the leaked Supreme Court decision that telegraphed the end of Roe v. Wade; the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas; the first airing of hearings by the congressional panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol — dovetailed to Democrats’ favor, Rosenberg said.
“Over May and June, the fear of MAGA — what I call the MAGA hangover — started pressing down on the Republican brand,” Rosenberg said. “There was evidence of that in public polling ... And then it became manifest in actual elections, including in red states like Alaska, Kansas and Nebraska. It manifested in the voter registration numbers, it manifested in the fundraising, it manifested in early voting and manifested in the election.”
A primary driver of Democrats’ success was the abortion issue, said Rosenberg, who predicted it would continue to cause problems for Republicans for years to come.
The Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health decision “didn’t just change this election,” he said. “It fundamentally changed our politics — there’s a before and after. And the after is really bad for Republicans.”
The conservative-leaning Supreme Court exerted influence on the election in ways beyond turbocharging the politics of abortion. Its 2019 decision to allow for partisan redistricting enabled both parties to try to maximize their advantage after the 2020 census.
Republicans ended up benefiting most, as states including Florida and Georgia produced heavily gerrymandered maps that favored the GOP. Some Democratic efforts to draw their own favorable district lines faltered when courts blocked maps in Maryland and New York. The New York ruling was especially consequential for Democrats, who ended up losing four seats in the midterm, including that of Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who chaired the party’s House campaign committee.
The Supreme Court also blocked the redrawing of maps that had been found by lower courts to be in violation of the Voting Rights Act. In Alabama and Louisiana, that meant stopping the creation of additional majority-Black districts that would have likely favored Democrats.
“The Supreme Court was the hidden player in this election,” said Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. “On one hand, the Supreme Court created dynamics pushing the electorate toward Democrats. At the same time, the Supreme Court enabled discriminatory maps that were going to block some of that momentum.”
The redistricting process — which is meant to be a decennial process — will drag on past this midterm. States such as Ohio and North Carolina will need to produce new maps. And the Supreme Court is considering potential changes to the Voting Rights Act that could allow for the dismantling of minority districts.
“There’s a lot more redistricting and a lot more fighting over maps before the 2024 election is yet to be had,” Li said. “These maps ended up being pretty good for Democrats, all things considered, in a year that should’ve been tough. But these aren’t necessarily the maps we will be using in 2024. Those could be much more favorable toward Republicans.”
(By Melanie Mason, Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times staff writers Nolan D. McCaskill in Washington and Hannah Fry in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)