By Alan Fram
Republicans drove toward renewed control of the House on Tuesday as Democrats failed to make any significant inroads into the GOP’s delegations from the East, South and Midwest.
With more than half of the 435 House races called by The Associated Press, Republicans had won 151 seats and were leading in 53 more. Democrats had taken 89 districts and led in 56 others.
There were another 20 seats in Western states where Republican incumbents were not facing serious challenges, but those polls remained open. A party needs 218 seats to control the House.
Democrats grabbed their first GOP seat of the night, defeating 10-term GOP veteran Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland in a race that was preordained after Democrats controlling the state legislature added more Democratic suburbs near Washington to his western Maryland district.
But in an Election Day that was producing little net change in the parties’ numbers overall, Republicans responded by ousting one Democrat from Kentucky and another from North Carolina. They also picked up an open Democratic seat in both North Carolina and Oklahoma.
Even before renewed GOP control was clinched, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio — re-elected to his seat without opposition — claimed victory and laid down a marker for upcoming battles in Congress.
“The American people want solutions, and tonight they responded by renewing our House Republican majority,” he said at a gathering of Republicans in Washington. “The American people also made clear there’s no mandate for raising tax rates.”
One of the top fights when Congress returns for a postelection session this month will be over the looming expiration of income tax cuts first enacted a decade ago under President George W. Bush. Republicans want to renew them all, while President Barack Obama wants the cuts to expire for the highest-earning Americans.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., refused to concede. She told Democrats rallying a few blocks away from the GOP rally where Boehner spoke that by evening’s end, Democrats would end up “exceeding everyone’s expectations and perhaps achieving 25,” the number of added seats Democrats would need to gain House control.
A glimmer of hope remained for some Democratic gains as 11 members of the tea-party backed House GOP freshman class of 2010 were trailing in incomplete returns.
GOP attorney Andy Barr defeated Democrat Ben Chandler after losing to him by just 647 votes in 2010. Chandler, among a dwindling number of moderate Blue Dog Democrats, has represented the district in Kentucky horse country surrounding Lexington, since 2004 but faced voters who heavily favored Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who easily carried the state over Obama.
Republicans also ousted Rep. Larry Kissell of North Carolina, a two-term veteran who was among several Democrats in the state who faced far tougher districts due to GOP-controlled redistricting. By mid-evening, Republicans had also picked up two open seats in the state, including one abandoned by Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler, who announced his retirement after it became clear that his district would have been harder for him to win.
Others re-elected easily included House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.; No. 2 House Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland; and Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, another top Democrat.
Also winning was Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., the Chicago lawmaker who took medical leave from Congress in June and has been at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for treatment of bipolar disorder. His only campaigning has been by automated phone calls to voters.
Democrats had been hoping to add the 25 seats on Election Day that they would need to take control of the chamber from Republicans, or at least gain a healthy number of districts. But after both sides’ House candidates and their allies spent a record $1.1 billion campaigning, it appeared Democrats might pick up just a handful of seats.
Though all 435 House seats were in play, only around 60 featured truly competitive races.
Democrats targeted many of the 87 members of the GOP’s tea party-backed freshman class of 2010 that swept the party to House control. Only about two dozen faced threatening challenges.
As Obama’s lead over GOP challenger Mitt Romney shriveled to a near draw as Election Day approached, Democrats’ expectations for coattails that would boost their House candidates shrunk as well. Republicans, building off their enhanced control of statehouses, also did a robust job of protecting their incumbents and weakening Democrats when congressional district lines were redrawn after the 2010 census, especially in states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
The economy and jobs dominated the presidential campaign, but there was little evidence either party had harnessed those issues in a decisive way at the House level. Both sides agreed that this year’s election lacked a nationwide wave that would give either side sweeping strength — as occurred when Democrats seized control in 2006 and expanded their majority in 2008, and Republicans snatched the chamber back in 2010.
Democrats had predicted that waning public support for the tea party movement and disgust with gridlock between Congress and Obama would cost Republicans seats. They also said the House GOP budget and its reshaping of the popular Medicare health care program would wound House Republican candidates — especially after the fiscal blueprint’s author, GOP Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, became his party’s vice presidential nominee.
From coast to coast, Democrats flooded the airwaves with TV spots linking GOP candidates to the tea party and to crusades to abolish Medicare and slash taxes for the rich. Republicans responded by tying Democratic candidates to Obama and his economic stimulus and health care overhaul laws, especially in areas where he is less popular.
Going into Tuesday’s voting, Republicans controlled the House 242-193, including vacancies in two formerly GOP-held and three Democratic seats.
Turnover was inevitable, and a large number of newcomers will be sworn into the House in January no matter what.
There were 62 districts where no incumbents were running at all, either because they had retired or lost earlier party primaries or because the seats were newly created to reflect the census.
When combined with likely losses by incumbents, the number of new House members in the next Congress could match the 91 freshmen who started serving in 2011 — a number unmatched since 1993.
Polls underscored the public sentiment that Democrats had hoped they could use to their advantage.
A CBS News-New York Times poll late last month showed just 15 percent of Americans approved of how Congress was handling its job, near its historic lows. And an Associated Press-GfK poll in August showed that 39 percent approved of congressional Democrats while just 31 percent were satisfied with congressional Republicans.
Republicans, however, enjoyed a significant financial edge.
Republican House candidates, the GOP and allies like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads political committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent a combined $664 million on House races through October, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Democrats and their backers like labor and environmental groups spent a total of $506 million.