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Republicans capture control of the House after falling short of midterm expectations

Members-Elect of the 118th Congress take a group photo on the House steps, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022.

By Shane Goldmacher

Republicans secured a slender majority in the House of Representatives earlier this weeek, a delayed yet consequential finish to the 2022 midterm elections that will reorder the balance of power in Washington and is expected to effectively give the party a veto on President Joe Biden’s agenda for the next two years.

With vote counting stretching for more than a week, the Republican Party formally captured the 218 House seats needed to claim the majority after just four years out of power. The outcomes in six close races that remain undecided will determine the final size of a slim Republican majority that will be far narrower than party leaders had expected, though Republicans still cheered the achievement.

“The era of one-party Democrat rule in Washington is over,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, said this week on Capitol Hill, as his Republican colleagues nominated him to serve as House speaker. “Washington now has a check and balance.”

The victory of Rep. Mike Garcia of California pushed Republicans into the majority, a somewhat anticlimactic finish to an election that was an overall disappointment for House Republicans who had arrived at Election Day with grandiose predictions of a red wave. Of the six remaining uncalled House races, Republicans were ahead in four and Democrats were leading in two.

In the Senate, Democrats maintained control of the chamber, which has been split 50-50, and could even expand their majority if Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., prevails in a runoff election next month against Herschel Walker, the Republican former football star.

The final results show that voters failed to deliver the type of unalloyed repudiation of Biden and his management of the economy that many Republicans had predicted in the face of the hottest inflation in 40 years. Democrats instead enjoyed the strongest showing in a presidential midterm in the past two decades, after Biden repeatedly cast the 2022 campaign not as a referendum on Democratic rule but as a choice between his party and Republican extremism.

“I congratulate Leader McCarthy on Republicans winning the House majority, and am ready to work with House Republicans to deliver results for working families,” Biden said in a statement Wednesday, adding that “the future is too promising to be trapped in political warfare.”

But the president also recognized the surprising strength of the Democratic showing, and the defeat of a series of far-right Republicans who had refused to recognize the legitimacy of the last election. “There was a strong rejection of election deniers, political violence and intimidation,” he said.

In the House, Democratic incumbents last week displayed an uncanny durability from Michigan to Virginia to Kansas to Pennsylvania. If not for a series of court cases that affected new district lines in states like Florida, New York and Ohio, Republicans might not have won a majority at all. The Democratic Party’s struggles in New York, where Republican gains included knocking off the chair of the House Democratic campaign committee, also bolstered the Republican takeover.

Still, there is a saying in Congress that the only number that matters in the House is 218 — and Republicans will enter 2023 with at least that many votes, ushering in a new era of divided government.

“Voters hate division and dysfunction, and they just voted for two more years of it,” said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic political strategist and former chief of staff to Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va.

Democrats have ceded the House after just four years in charge. The party, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, won power in the first midterm under former President Donald Trump and gave it back in Biden’s first midterm. It was the exact same length of time — four years — that Democrats last held the chamber, between the 2006 and 2010 elections, and a sign of the continued volatility of U.S. politics.

Republicans had needed to flip only five seats in 2022 in order to claim the majority in the chamber and they were competing in dozens of Democratic districts in the weeks leading up to the election. A super PAC aligned with the House Republican leadership had outraised its Democratic counterpart by nearly $90 million, giving the party a financial edge.

Yet the new Republican majority was not cemented until more than a week after the election.

“Did we want something much bigger?” McCarthy said Tuesday. “Yeah, we did.”

Among Republicans, finger-pointing over the party’s shortcomings, in both the House and Senate, had already begun in earnest. Some blamed the party’s messaging. Others took aim at the large role that Trump has continued to play in the party after Republicans lost the House, Senate and White House during his first term. Undaunted, Trump announced another run for president Tuesday evening at his private club in Florida.

On Wednesday, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the party’s longtime leader, easily dispatched a challenge from Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who had served as chair of the Senate GOP campaign arm for the party’s disappointing 2022 contests. The two men’s bitter feud has spilled into public view and has served as a distraction during the high-stakes Georgia runoff. Also on Wednesday, the Senate took, on a bipartisan vote, a key step toward passing legislation to provide federal protections for same-sex marriages, with a dozen Republicans joining Democrats in support of the measure.

The political dynamics in Washington in 2023 will be very different with Republicans leading the House. The slenderness of the new Republican majority has raised questions about both McCarthy’s ability to take the speaker’s gavel in January and his ability to govern, as a far-right faction is already making demands of him.

McCarthy, 57, resoundingly won a closed-door nomination vote to become the next speaker, dispatching the protest candidacy of Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Az., who was an influential figure in the efforts to overturn the 2020 election results on behalf of Trump.

McCarthy won the secret-ballot vote 188-31. But that vote was the easy part.

To officially claim the speakership, he will require the nearly unanimous support of his conference in a formal floor vote in January. The narrow Republican majority means he can afford to lose an excruciatingly small number of dissenters, greatly empowering his internal critics.

Among them is Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, a close Trump ally, who said Tuesday that he would oppose McCarthy on the floor in January and that there was “a critical mass” of similar McCarthy opponents.

“To believe that Kevin McCarthy is going to be speaker, you have to believe he’s going to get votes in the next six weeks that he couldn’t get in the last six years,” Gaetz said.

The future for Pelosi, 82, is also uncertain. In October, her husband was the victim of a violent attack inside their San Francisco home, where he was hit with a hammer and hospitalized; he has since been discharged from the hospital.

In an interview over the weekend on ABC News, Pelosi said, “I don’t have any plans to step away from Congress.” She makes little effort to mask her disdain for her potential successor, McCarthy, and his ability to serve as House speaker, a powerful post that is second in the presidential line of succession.

“No, I don’t think he has it,” Pelosi said on CNN over the weekend, when asked if McCarthy had what it takes to be speaker. “But that’s up to his own people to make a decision as to how they want to be led or otherwise.”

Democratic control of the Senate ensures that whatever agenda McCarthy and the Republicans push through is likely to be dead on arrival in the upper chamber. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the Democratic majority leader, has called his chamber the “firewall” against Republican priorities.

With a Senate under Democratic control, Biden will continue to be able to have his Cabinet and judicial appointments confirmed, including any potential Supreme Court vacancies. In the House, Republicans will now have broad subpoena power to initiate investigations into the Biden administration, and McCarthy has signaled that they are eager to do so.

The White House began making plans months ago for an onslaught of Republican investigations, hiring Richard A. Sauber, a white-collar defense lawyer, as “special counsel to the president” to oversee the response to subpoenas and other oversight efforts.

The relationship between Biden and McCarthy as their parties’ most powerful leaders in Washington got off to an inauspicious start.

Biden told reporters that he called McCarthy right after the election and said, “If you win the majority, congratulations. But congratulations — so far, you’ve made some gains.” McCarthy characterized it differently on Fox News: “He congratulated me, so for anyone who thinks we didn’t win the majority, Joe at least believes we did as well.”

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