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GOP gains edge in battle for Congress, but its expectations are dim

Nov. 8, 2022 Updated Tue., Nov. 8, 2022 at 9:54 p.m.

People line up to vote at Desert Breeze Community Center on Election Day in Las Vegas on Tuesday.  (New York Times)
People line up to vote at Desert Breeze Community Center on Election Day in Las Vegas on Tuesday. (New York Times)
By Shane Goldmacher and Katie Glueck New York Times

Democrats were bracing to defend their slim majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate on Tuesday as an anxious nation rendered its midterm verdict on President Joe Biden’s leadership and his party.

Republicans won some key early victories in Florida soon after polls began to close Tuesday evening. But Democrats scored a series of wins – an incumbent senator in Colorado, congresswomen in Northern Virginia and Ohio, an open seat in Rhode Island – that began to dim Republican hopes of a far-reaching nationwide sweep.

The 2022 midterms were hard-fought – over crime, inflation, abortion, immigration and democracy itself – and the early results reflected a deeply yet closely divided nation.

Still, Republicans have a multitude of pathways to claim the House majority, needing to flip just five seats. To take power in the Senate, which is now divided 50-50, Republicans must net a single Democratic-held seat.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Republicans were making inroads deep into territory that Biden won with ease just two years ago. Democrats were forced to spend time, energy and money in liberal corners of California and New York defending House seats, including one held by the chair of the Democratic House campaign arm.

The Senate map was more fluid, with polls showing close contests in at least a half-dozen states. Democrats were defending seats in Georgia, Arizona, New Hampshire and Nevada. Republicans were trying to hold seats in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Republicans had targeted Colorado in hopes of scoring a big night, but Sen. Michael Bennet, the Democrat, won re-election Tuesday.

In Florida, Republicans prevailed in the closely watched Senate race early Tuesday evening, erasing a potential Democratic pickup from the map. Sen. Marco Rubio handily defeated Rep. Val Demings, who had become a star Democratic fundraiser, pulling in more than $73 million for the race.

The state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, won re-election with relative comfort. Florida has long been a battleground but has shifted decidedly to the right in recent years. Nowhere was that clearer than in heavily Hispanic and populous Miami-Dade County, where Rubio and DeSantis were both ahead; Biden had carried that same county in 2020 even while losing the state.

In a victory speech, DeSantis said Republicans had “rewritten the political map” of the state.

In the House, Democrats in Rhode Island staved off the strongest Republican push to win a seat in that state in many years. In Virginia, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat, won re-election in a district that had been closely watched for signs of a building Republican wave. And in Ohio, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat, defeated a far-right challenger despite being drawn into a new seat that would have voted for Donald Trump had it existed in 2020. Kaptur will become the longest-serving female member of Congress in her next term.

The Republicans did not need those particular seats to claim a majority. But the results showed the limits of the party’s reach.

Many less competitive Senate races were also quickly called. Republicans maintained Senate seats in more conservative states, including South Carolina, Kentucky and Indiana. Democrats held seats in liberal bastions like New York, Vermont and Connecticut.

Republican majorities in one or both chambers would usher in a new era of divided government at a turbulent moment in American politics, all but freezing the Democratic policy agenda for the second half of Biden’s first term and likely signaling the start of endless investigations into the administration.

On the Friday before the election, Biden warned in unusually blunt terms what the future would look like if Republicans took both the House and Senate. “It’s going to be a horrible two years,” Biden said in a Chicago speech to donors.

Democrats had some bright spots. In Massachusetts, Maura Healey became the first woman to be elected governor of the state. That victory will make her the first openly lesbian governor in the country, a title she will share with the Democrat running for governor of Oregon, Tina Kotek, if Kotek also wins. In Maryland, Wes Moore will become the state’s first Black governor.

In Arkansas, meanwhile, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Republican and former White House press secretary, was elected governor.

Democrats were especially focused on a number of governors’ races in presidential swing states where Republicans had nominated a candidate who had embraced the election denialism espoused by Trump – including in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

In Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro, the state’s attorney general, entered Election Day favored over his far-right opponent, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, leaving Democrats hopeful about retaining that seat. Most major networks called the win for Shapiro, although Mastriano refused to concede.

In Texas, Democratic hopes of flipping the governor’s mansion were dashed as Beto O’Rourke lost to Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican.

As of Tuesday evening, elections overall across the country seemed to have unfolded smoothly for millions of Americans. But in some communities, there were lawsuits filed amid scattered problems, including technical glitches that disrupted ballot counting in Arizona’s Maricopa County.

Politically, Democrats were battling intense national headwinds, shaped by grave concerns about the economy and inflation, and confronting general challenges faced by the party in power during midterm elections.

In some races, including governors’ contests in New York and Oregon, issues of public safety and quality of life were also dominant themes. And almost everywhere, Biden’s unpopularity was a driving force in the races.

A handful of Republican megadonors had supplied tens of millions of dollars to a House Republican super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, which used its financial might to stretch the political playing field deep into traditionally blue territory, thinning Democratic defenses. In an effort to stave off defeats there, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris held closing events and rallies.

Republicans sought at every turn to tie Democratic candidates to their national party, while Democrats often cast their opponents as far outside the mainstream, especially on issues of abortion rights and election denialism.

Democratic contenders in several of the pivotal Senate races – including Mark Kelly in Arizona, Raphael Warnock in Georgia, Tim Ryan in Ohio and John Fetterman in Pennsylvania – all had strong personal brands. Their races tested the degree to which distinctive political identities offered protection against a challenging national environment, in an increasingly polarized country.

One Republican with a national brand, DeSantis, would not commit to serving out his term. He is seen by many as the party’s strongest potential challenger to Trump in a potential 2024 Republican presidential primary. Trump was holding an election night party in the ballroom at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida estate, a day after teasing a Nov. 15 announcement of another presidential run.

In the final stretch of the campaign, many Democrats worried whether the party had landed early enough – or ever – on a clear and powerful economic message. Throughout the race, Democrats tried to press a two-pronged pitch, arguing that they had delivered legislative results with their congressional majorities, while Republicans were consumed by extremism.

Some Democratic strategists believe the party’s efforts to make abortion one of the defining issues of 2022, after the Supreme Court overturned nearly 50 years of precedent and eliminated the federal right to an abortion in June, had strengthened the party’s hand headed into Tuesday, galvanizing the Democratic base.

“Women’s rights are on the line in this race,” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who was running in a challenging race, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “That’s why we all need to get out and vote.”

But others said the focus on abortion had left Democrats appearing to ignore the dominant economic concern of voters. Biden repeatedly insisted the election was a choice between two radically different visions for the country, rather than a referendum on the party in power.

The results will test whether voters embraced Biden’s attempted branding of Republicans as “ultra-MAGA” or were more inclined to send a message to Democrats that the economic status quo was unacceptable.

Trump, for his part, embraced the label. “I’m the MAGA king,” Trump said to cheers in a final weekend rally in Pennsylvania.

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