A ripple, not a wave: The GOP is poised to win the House, so why are Democrats relieved?

A narrow GOP margin raises questions about governing.

Susan Page
  • Republicans were poised to get the 218 House seats they needed, but few to spare.
  • Inflation was the top concern, but abortion was a close second.
  • President Biden wasn't on the ballot, but he was a factor in the vote.

When does a victory not feel much like one?

Republicans were poised Wednesday to claim control of the House of Representatives – with the bragging rights and the authority that would mean – but by a midterm margin so narrow that it raised questions about the GOP's ability to govern and left Democrats energized by their unexpectedly solid showing.

GOP hopes of an election tsunami, of a red tide that would sweep the party into power in the House and Senate, never arrived. The wave turned out to be more of a wavelet, with a Senate still so evenly split that control may not be decided until a Dec. 6 runoff in Georgia between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker.

For President Joe Biden, election night didn't deliver the "shellacking" that predecessor Barack Obama suffered in his first midterms as president and that strategists in both sides had predicted. Despite angst over the rising cost of food and housing, Democratic losses were the most limited for the party in power in two decades and well below modern averages.

"It was a good day, I think, for democracy, and it was a good day for America," Biden said at a White House news conference late Wednesday afternoon, taking a victory lap and offering "to work with my Republican colleagues."

House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., delivers remarks to supporters alongside Ronna Romney McDaniel, Republican National Committee chair, and Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., at a watch party at the Westin Hotel on Nov. 9, 2022 in Washington, DC.

For former President Donald Trump, some of the controversial contenders he recruited and backed lost, among them Pennsylvania Senate candidate Mehmet Oz. Meanwhile, a potential rival for the next presidential nomination, Florida Gov. Rick DeSantis, won big, scoring reelection by double digits in what is now Trump's home state.

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A cautionary note: Midterms have a sorry record of predicting what will happen in the presidential elections that follow. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Obama won second terms after miserable midterms. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush lost reelection bids after suffering smaller midterm losses.

That said, the surprising 2022 results have the potential to roil the next presidential race, encouraging challengers to Trump for the Republican nomination and strengthening Biden's hand among Democrats.

No cushion for GOP defections

Before 2024, of course, Republicans expect to have two years in control of the House, a takeover that would give them command of committees, power to pursue investigations, and potential to pass or block legislation.

First, they'll need to elect a new speaker of the House, a post that Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California has been working toward for years. 

He had predicted much larger gains, up to 60 seats, and a handful of the most combative Republicans already have announced their intention to vote against him. The GOP's slender edge leaves little room for defections by the conservative Freedom Caucus or anybody else – not only in the leadership race but also in the efforts to govern that will follow.

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McCarthy delayed what was planned to be a triumphant victory speech during prime time on Tuesday night to nearly 2 a.m. Wednesday, and he tempered his words.

"It is clear that we are going to take the House back," he said when he finally addressed supporters in Washington. "When we wake up tomorrow, we will be in the majority and Nancy Pelosi will be in the minority.”

He didn't mention numbers. Republicans needed to flip only five seats. They were headed toward doing that, but with few to spare. 

"Last night, House Democrats stood our ground," New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told reporters at midday Wednesday, touting Democratic returns although he lost his own bid for another term. He said he hoped the election would mark "the high-water mark on some of the anger and division that we have dealt with this entire cycle, from Jan. 6 onward."

Inflation and abortion resonated as issues 

Republican prospects were boosted by a gloomy electorate. Three-fourths of voters in network exit polls by Edison Research said they were either dissatisfied or angry with the way things are going in the United States. Nearly two-thirds of those voters backed the Republican congressional candidate.

Economic qualms and fear of crime resonated, and voters rated the Republican Party as better able to handle both. Nearly a third of voters, 31%, said inflation was the most important issue to them, the leading single issue, and more than 7 in 10 of them voted for the GOP congressional candidate. 

But the Democratic Party was judged better able to handle the question of abortion, which ranked a close second, chosen by 27%. Three-fourths of those voters supported the Democratic congressional candidate. The Supreme Court decision in June overturning Roe v. Wade, which ignited concern about abortion rights, seems to have helped prevent deeper Democratic losses.

The evening's trench warfare was illustrated in two hard-fought swing districts in Virginia. Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger held on to her seat over Republican challenger Yesli Vega. But another moderate Democratic incumbent, Elaine Luria, a member of the Jan. 6 committee, was defeated by state senator Jen Kiggans.

Supporters cheer during an election night event for Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman on Nov. 9, 2022 in Pittsburgh. Fetterman defeated Republican Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz.

Biden wasn't on the ballot, but he was a factor in the vote.

A third of voters said their House vote was intended to send a message to oppose Biden; 1 in 5 said it was intended to support him. Nearly half of voters said Biden's policies were "hurting" the country; only a third said they were "helping."

Even so, Biden had a more positive standing than Trump – or, put another way, a less negative one. Biden's favorable-unfavorable rating was 41%-56%, 15 points underwater. Trump's rating was 39%-58%, 19 points underwater.

If 2024 turns out to be a rematch between them, those numbers will be worth watching.