WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and Democrats exulted Wednesday in outperforming expectations in the midterm elections, even as vote-counting was still in progress and control of both chambers of Congress remained unknown.
The U.S. Senate will go to the winner of two of the last three races where party control is still in doubt in Arizona, Nevada and a Dec. 6 runoff election in Georgia. More unexpected was a close race for the U.S. House, where Democrats still have a small chance at keeping their narrow majority after far outpacing Republicans in toss-up races and competing in some districts thought to be out of reach.
David Wasserman, senior editor for the U.S. House of Representatives for The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter, called Tuesday’s midterms “the craziest Election Night” he’d ever seen.
Wasserman had predicted Monday that “a 15-30 seat GOP gain [was] the likeliest outcome,” though he cautioned at the time there were “a wide range of possibilities.”
“A dearth of high-quality public polling has made House races tricky to forecast this year, relative to the last midterm in 2018,” Wasserman wrote. “But a House control appears easily within the GOP’s reach — with the biggest remaining mystery the size of that majority.”
Democrats would need to win the remaining toss-up races and win a few Republican-leaning districts — such as Lauren Boebert’s in Colorado, where the high-profile right-wing Republican incumbent trailed challenger Adam Frisch by a mere 62 votes with 96% reporting Wednesday night — to keep their majority, Inside Elections analyst Jacob Rubashkin tweeted.
Democrats’ path is “narrow,” Rubashkin said. “It’s unlikely, it requires pretty much everything to go Dems’ way from here on out.”
Still counting out West
Results in Nevada and Arizona may not be known for days, elections officials said Wednesday.
But even with results unknown in races that will be key to congressional control, Democrats claimed victory in elections that could have seen them sustain heavy losses.
Biden remained optimistic during a press conference late Wednesday afternoon, saying that control of the U.S. House was a moving target, not yet completely out of Democrats’ reach.
“Based on what we know as of today, we’ve lost very few seats for certain,” Biden said. “We still have a possibility of keeping the House, but it’s going to be close.”
Biden noted later he hasn’t spoken much with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader, over the years, but said he expects to call him later Wednesday.
“I think he’s the Republican leader and I haven’t had much of an occasion to talk to him,” Biden said when asked about the two lawmakers’ relationship.
Later on in the press conference, Biden said he was going to “talk to some of the Republican leadership soon,” indicating his call was with others besides solely the California Republican who hopes to become speaker.
Biden said he would not change his approach to governing, even if facing a Republican-led House.
When asked what he would change to address exit poll data that shows most Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction, Biden said voters would feel differently once the policies his administration and a Democratic Congress enacted took full effect.
“Nothing,” he said. “Because they’re just finding out about what we’re doing.”
McCarthy, for his part, hasn’t said much publicly since giving a quick speech to supporters in a Washington, D.C., hotel ballroom around 2 a.m. Wednesday.
During that three-and-a-half minute address, McCarthy predicted that when people woke up later Wednesday morning, the GOP would be on track to take over the U.S. House majority and Democrats would be heading toward the minority.
That still hadn’t happened as of Wednesday evening.
Both Republicans and Democrats were short of the 218 seats needed to control the U.S. House, with The Associated Press calling 207 seats for the GOP and 183 for Democrats as of 7 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday.
Control of the U.S. Senate looked like it could come down to a runoff in Georgia, a possible repeat of two years ago when Peach Staters gave Democrats their majority.
Republicans held 49 Senate seats Wednesday evening, according to The Associated Press, while Democrats controlled 48. Either party needs to win in at least two of the three uncalled races in order for their party to control the U.S. Senate.
In Arizona, Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly holds a slight lead over Republican Blake Masters, 51% to 47%, though just three-quarters of the votes were counted as of Wednesday evening. If that dynamic continues, Democrats would bump up to 49 Senate seats in their bid to keep their majority for the next session of Congress.
Nevada Democratic U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto didn’t have the lead as of Wednesday evening, holding 47% of the vote with slightly more than three-fourths of votes counted. Former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a Republican, led in that race with 50% of the vote.
If that continues and Laxalt does indeed flip Nevada’s U.S. Senate seat from blue to red, that would give Republicans control of 50. But since Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote would favor Democrats, the GOP would still need to win in either Arizona or the Georgia runoff next month to gain control.
The Georgia runoff between Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and GOP nominee Herschel Walker, a former professional football player, could be just as close as their current contest. That race is set for Dec. 6.
With 98% of the Georgia vote counted in Tuesday’s midterm elections, Warnock held a razor-thin lead with 49.4% of the vote compared to Walker’s 48.5%. In real votes that represented a 35,000 vote gulf in a state with about 7 million active voters, according to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. The Associated Press has called that the race will head to a runoff between the two.
The next two years
U.S. Senate Democrats, if they keep control of the chamber, would likely use the next two years in power to continue confirming Biden’s executive and judicial nominees, though it’s unclear what legislation they might be able to negotiate with U.S. House Republicans, should the GOP actually gain control there.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, sought to bolster the party’s base ahead of the elections by saying if voters gave the party at least 52 senators, then lawmakers would be able to change the legislative filibuster and codify Roe v. Wade, ensuring abortion access nationwide once again.
In June, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion, Schumer said in a written statement the November elections would likely decide the future of reproductive rights.
“Today’s decision makes crystal clear the contrast as we approach the November elections: elect more MAGA Republicans if you want nationwide abortion bans, the jailing of women and doctors and no exemptions for rape or incest,” Schumer said. “Or, elect more pro-choice Democrats to save Roe and protect a woman’s right to make their own decisions about their body, not politicians.”
Democrats will not pick up the seats needed to change Senate rules to eliminate the 60-vote legislative filibuster and allow a nationwide abortion law to pass. It’s also highly unlikely House Republicans, who may be on track to control that chamber with a narrow majority starting in January, would move such a bill to Biden’s desk.
Routine legislation could become a bigger challenge for a divided Congress, should that be the final election outcome.
Aside from the sweeping legislative packages that each party likes to enact when they have unified control of the federal government, U.S. lawmakers have dozens of bills that must pass every year to keep the lights on.
A Republican U.S. House and a Democratic U.S. Senate, or vice versa, would need to work through those bills together, a task that can be somewhat mundane at times but if not complete would end with a government shutdown or a first-in-history default on the country’s debt.
A Democratic U.S. Senate would continue confirming Biden’s executive and judicial nominees, though a Republican U.S. Senate would likely take a different approach, subjecting nominees to more scrutiny, or outright rejections.
Ariana Figueroa contributed to this report.