PHOENIX, Ariz., Nov 9 (Reuters) – Republicans made modest gains in U.S. midterm elections but Democrats performed better than expected, leaving control of Congress and the future of President Joe Biden’s agenda unclear on Wednesday morning.
Many of the most competitive races were too close to call and Republicans acknowledged that the election was not producing the sweeping “red wave” victory they had sought.
The results appeared to show voters punishing Biden for presiding over an economy hit by steep inflation, while also lashing out against Republican moves to ban abortion.
And poor performances by some candidates allied to Donald Trump indicated exhaustion with the kind of electoral and governing chaos fomented by the former Republican president, raising questions about the viability of his possible run for the White House in 2024.
While Democrats’ performance defied expectations, they still face the possibility of losing their meager majorities to Republicans in the House of Representatives and maybe even the Senate, putting Biden’s legislative agenda in jeopardy.
Biden had framed Tuesday’s election as a test of American democracy at a time when many Republicans embrace Trump’s false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.
A number of so-called election deniers who backed Trump’s claims were elected to office on Tuesday, but fears of violence or other major disruptions by far-right poll watchers at voting stations did not materialize.
In the House, Republicans were favored to win a narrow majority that would allow them to block Biden’s legislative priorities and launch investigations into his administration and family.
By early Wednesday, Republicans had flipped a net six Democratic House seats, Edison Research projected, one more than the minimum they need to take over the chamber. That number could change as more final results roll in.
But Democrats were doing much better than many had expected and seemed to have avoided the kind of heavy midterm election defeat that often plagues sitting presidents of either party.
In a critical win for Democrats, John Fetterman flipped a Republican-held U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, beating celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz and bolstering his party’s chances of holding the chamber.
The mood at the White House improved as the night wore on, with once-nervous aides celebrating Fetterman’s victory.
Control of the Senate depended on tight races in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada, where ballots were still being counted.
The Georgia race appeared to be headed for a runoff vote on Dec. 6 because both the Democratic and Republican candidates were falling short of the 50 percent needed for victory.
If the Republicans do take control of Congress, they plan to seek cost savings in the popular Social Security and Medicare retirement and healthcare programs run by the government. They also want to make permanent expiring tax cuts under a partisan 2017 law enacted by Republicans.
At the same time, they have said they want to undo Biden’s major achievements addressing climate control and prevent possible efforts to expand social programs to include childcare subsidies so more parents can hold jobs, for example.
Republican push-back against increasing Washington’s borrowing authority next year without major spending cuts also has begun to materialize. A Republican-run Congress could also block aid to Ukraine, although analysts say they are more likely to slow or pare back the flow of defense and economic assistance.
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy had hoped to celebrate a resounding victory that would propel him into the top job of speaker.
Instead, he had to settle for a promise to his supporters: “When you wake up tomorrow, we will be in the majority and (Democratic Speaker) Nancy Pelosi will be in the minority,” he said on Tuesday night.
Only 13 of the 53 most competitive races, based on a Reuters analysis of the leading nonpartisan forecasters, had been decided, raising the prospect that the final outcome may not be known for some time.
U.S. stock index futures ticked lower on Wednesday as investors kept a close eye on the results in expectation of a divided Congress that would make it harder for the passage of drastic policy changes.
NO ‘RED WAVE’
The party that occupies the White House almost always loses seats in elections midway through a president’s first four-year term, and Biden has struggled with low public approval.
But Republican hopes for a “red wave” of victories faded as Democrats showed surprising resilience in several key races. Democrats were projected as the winners in 11 of the 13 close contests that had been decided.
“Definitely not a Republican wave, that’s for darn sure,” Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham told NBC in an interview.
Trump, who took an active role in recruiting Republican candidates for Congress and is strongly hinting at a third run for the presidency in 2024, had mixed results.
He notched a victory in Ohio, where author J.D. Vance won a Senate seat to keep it in Republican hands. But television host and heart surgeon Mehmet Oz failed to win his Pennsylvania Senate race, and Doug Mastriano, another Trump ally, was handily defeated in the Pennsylvania governor’s race.
Trump allies also were struggling in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada Senate races, where ballots were still being counted.
Meanwhile Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who could be a main Republican challenger to Trump in 2024, added to his growing national profile, defeating Democratic challenger Charlie Crist by nearly 20 percentage points, Edison projected.
The Senate was still a toss-up, with the pivotal battles in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada still in play. The Georgia Senate race could end up in a runoff, possibly with Senate control at stake.
Democrats currently control the 50-50 Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris able to break any ties.
Thirty-five Senate seats, all 435 House seats and three dozen governors’ races were on the ballot.
More than 46 million Americans voted ahead of Election Day, either by mail or in person and state election officials caution that counting those ballots will take time.
Both parties notched victories in competitive districts.
Democratic governors also fended off strong Republican challenges in Michigan and Wisconsin, two states likely to remain political battlegrounds in the 2024 presidential race.
The primary issue weighing on Democrats was stubbornly high annual inflation, which at 8.2% stands at the highest rate in 40 years.
Voters in California, Michigan and Vermont approved referendums enshrining abortion rights in their state constitutions. Deeply conservative Kentucky looked poised to reject a constitutional amendment that would have declared there was no right to abortion.