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Midterm elections: Democrats flip House as GOP expands Senate majority

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 11/7/2018 Philip Rucker, Matt Viser, Elise Viebeck, Isaac Stanley-Becker
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Democrats seized control of the House while Republicans held the Senate on Tuesday in a national referendum on President Trump that drew record numbers of voters to the polls and opened the door to tougher oversight of the White House over the next two years.

The dramatic conclusion of the most expensive and consequential midterms in modern times fell short of delivering the sweeping repudiation of Trump wished for by Democrats and the “resistance” movement. But Democrats’ takeover in the House still portended serious changes in Washington, as the party prepared to block Trump’s agenda and investigate his personal finances and potential ties to Russia.

“Thanks to you, tomorrow will be a new day in America,” said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who is poised to reclaim the speaker’s gavel she lost eight years ago. The Democratic victory, she said, “is about restoring the Constitution’s checks and balances to the Trump administration,” as well as a check on Senate Republicans.

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Some key races remained too close to call on Wednesday, including the Senate contests in Arizona and Florida and the gubernatorial matchup in Georgia. Democrats appeared to be trailing in all three, though Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said his contest was proceeding to a recount.

The Associated Press declared Democratic Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.) the winner of his Senate race around midday.

In the House, returns early Wednesday showed Democrats poised to pick up more than the 23 seats they needed to gain a majority. Democrats were projected to flip at least 29 districts held by the GOP and on track to surrender only a few seats.

In morning tweets, Trump described the midterm election as “great” for Republicans and vowed to turn the tables on Democrats who investigate him and his administration.

“If the Democrats think they are going to waste Taxpayer Money investigating us at the House level, then we will likewise be forced to consider investigating them for all of the leaks of Classified Information, and much else, at the Senate level. Two can play that game!” he wrote.

Democrats are prepared to launch investigations of Trump and to closely scrutinize his policies on immigration, education and health care. But they are wary of immediately pursuing impeachment, concerned that such a move would undermine lawmakers who represent districts that Trump won in 2016.

In a new talking point, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cautioned Democrats against engaging in “presidential harassment” in the form of overly aggressive oversight.

“The Democrats in the House will have to decide just how much presidential harassment is good strategy. I’m not sure it will work for them,” he told reporters Wednesday.

Jockeying for House leadership positions began in earnest on Wednesday, though lawmakers are not due back in Washington until next week. Pelosi is widely considered to be the front-runner to retake the speaker’s gavel, though dozens of Democratic candidates had called for new leadership during the campaign.

Trump himself threw support behind Pelosi’s bid, tweeting Wednesday that Pelosi “has earned this great honor!” and that the GOP will “perhaps” lend her some votes if Democrats “give her a hard time.”

On the Republican side, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio) said in an interview with Hill.TV that he would challenge Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) for the role of minority leader. The move, while expected, underscored conservatives’ desire to expand their power within the GOP conference after a bruising election.

House GOP leadership elections are scheduled for Nov. 14.

On Tuesday, Republicans won hotly contested Senate races in Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Tennessee and Texas, with Trump’s racially charged warnings about undocumented immigrants and demonization of Democrats appearing to help withstand the “blue wave” the GOP once feared.

But Democrats — propelled by a rejection of Trumpism in the nation’s suburbs and from women and minority voters especially — notched victories in areas that just two years ago helped send Trump to the White House.

Women played a pivotal role in Democratic victories.

Slideshow by photo services

The Democratic Party won their support by 19 points, the largest margin in the history of midterm exit polling, compared with their margin of four points in 2014, according to network exit surveys from CNN. Independent women voted for Democratic candidates by a 17-point margin after narrowly supporting Republicans in 2014. And white women, a reliable voting bloc for the GOP, split their votes evenly between the two parties this year, after favoring Republicans by 14 points in 2014 and by 19 points in 2010.

Voters under 30 also favored Democrats this year by a 35-point margin over Republicans, compared with an 11-point margin in 2014, the polls found.

In the high-turnout election, Democrats picked up at least seven governorships, performing well across much of the upper Midwest and even in Kansas, where Laura Kelly was elected governor over the president’s handpicked candidate, Kris Kobach.

In Wisconsin, Democrat Tony Evers bested Gov. Scott Walker, once a Republican star who ran for president in 2016. Walker survived a hard-fought recall vote in 2012 and was reelected in 2014, only to be denied a third term by the state schools superintendent.

Incumbent Republicans fell in an array of suburban House districts, including the one held by House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions in the Dallas area. And in West Virginia — where Trump is wildly popular and campaigned heavily for Republicans — the reelection of Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III delivered a personal blow to the president.

The Democrats’ new House majority was propelled by a record number of female candidates. Women hold 84 House seats, but that share is projected to expand to 100 or more when all results are tallied. Across the country, 277 women were on the ballot Tuesday for Congress and governorships, an unprecedented number that included 210 House candidates.

But Democrats were disappointed elsewhere. Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Claire McCaskill of Missouri were defeated, while Nelson’s reelection in Florida appeared to be in doubt.

Democrats did pick up a seat in Nevada, where Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen prevailed over Sen. Dean Heller, the Republican incumbent. The governor’s mansion in Nevada is also set to change hands, as Republican Adam Laxalt conceded to Democrat Steve Sisolak, who is poised to replace the term-limited Brian Sandoval.

Rosen, who by early Wednesday was the lone Democratic challenger to beat a Republican incumbent in the Senate, cast her victory as a counterpoint to the racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric that had marked the closing days of the midterm campaign.

“After all the hate, all the hate that I’ve seen recently, that we’ve all seen, I can’t tell you how much this means to me as a former synagogue president,” Rosen told supporters in Las Vegas.

Two of the liberal movement’s greatest hopes for this election cycle, Democrats Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, struggled to overcome some of the most overt racial attacks since the civil rights era and make history as the first black governors in Georgia and Florida, respectively.

Gillum conceded to Republican Ron DeSantis, a Trump ally, while the Georgia race was too close to call. Early Wednesday morning, Abrams told supporters she would not concede to Republican Brian Kemp and warned that their right to vote was on the line.

Kemp stopped short of declaring victory outright but told supporters, “The math is on our side to win this election.”

If the candidates were to wind up below 50 percent, they would go head-to-head again in a December runoff.

Another Democratic star, Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, lost his spirited challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz (R) despite raising record sums of money and attracting grass-roots support throughout the country.

Midterm elections traditionally are referendums on the party in power, but Trump sought to ensure that this one would be a referendum on his presidency.

Returning to his 2016 campaign playbook, the president delivered fiery speeches that drew massive and enthusiastic crowds but contained a breathtaking barrage of falsehoods, invective and demagoguery. Describing himself in the closing weeks as a “nationalist,” Trump made a caravan of Central American migrants preparing to seek asylum in the United States a dominant theme.

The racial overtones put that explosive form of politics on the ballot, with major stakes for Republicans. The GOP is now overwhelmingly white, while Democrats have a much more multiethnic coalition that represents the direction in which the country’s demographics are heading.

Former president Barack Obama congratulated Democrats for “electing record numbers of women and young veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, a surge of minority candidates and a host of outstanding young leaders.”

“The more Americans who vote, the more our elected leaders look like America,” Obama said in a statement Wednesday.

The Senate results underscored just how much the Republican Party has morphed into the party of Trump. The incoming freshman class of Republicans is made up largely of Trump allies — including Mike Braun in Indiana, Josh Hawley in Missouri and Kevin Cramer in North Dakota — who campaigned effectively as rubber stamps for the president’s agenda and owe their new jobs, at least in part, to his energetic campaigning on their behalf.

Trump “worked very large and drew large crowds and I think it clearly had a positive impact on the outcome,” McConnell said. “The president was very helpful to us.”

An exception is Mitt Romney, who handily won his race for the open Senate seat in Utah, marking a return to the national stage for the party’s 2012 presidential nominee who in 2016 denounced Trump as a “con man” and a “fraud.” Following the death of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and the retirements of Sens. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.), Romney is poised to become the leading GOP counterweight to Trump on Capitol Hill, if he chooses to stand up to the president.

Slideshow by USA Today

Tuesday’s results were set to transform the House not only in partisan makeup but also in gender, age and ethnicity. Ilhan Omar in Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan will become the first Muslim women in the House. Sharice Davids in Kansas and Deb Haaland in New Mexico will become the first Native American women in the chamber. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 29-year-old from New York, became the youngest woman elected to Congress.

They were part of a wave of female candidates on the Democratic side, including Jennifer Wexton, who easily unseated Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) in a closely watched race in Northern Virginia, and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who narrowly defeated Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R) in South Florida.

By contrast, House Republicans will be more white and more male next year after the departure of several female members, some for higher office.

Rep. Mia Love, the sole black Republican woman in Congress, was trailing in Utah to Democrat Ben McAdams on Wednesday. Republicans were hoping that Young Kim, a Korean American, would win her California race to give the party some additional diversity, but she had not clinched a victory yet the day after the election.

Republican-held districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 provided the backbone of the Democratic efforts to win the House majority. Democratic challengers triumphed in a number of suburban areas, defeating Republican Reps. Mike Coffman in suburban Denver, Kevin Yoder in the Kansas City area and David Brat in the Richmond suburbs, among others.

But the Democratic momentum was not strong enough to carry some prized recruits over the finish line. Former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, who attracted significant outside funding, lost to Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr (R) in Kentucky.

In some ways, the outcome was eerily similar to that of 2016, with late polls overestimating the Democratic advantage in enthusiasm and Republicans showing unanticipated resilience, thanks in part to Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and focus on nativist themes.

Racial tensions that had been simmering beneath the surface for years came to a boil in the final weeks of the campaign. Robo-calls in Georgia featured a voice impersonating Oprah Winfrey and calling Abrams “a poor man’s Aunt Jemima.” In Florida, robo-calls mimicked Gillum as jungle sounds and chimpanzee noises were heard in the background.

Trump called Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, “not equipped” and Abrams, a leader in the Georgia state legislature, “not qualified” to be governors.” On Monday, all the major television networks rejected a Trump campaign advertisement about immigration, calling it offensive.

Philip Bump, Scott Clement, Karoun Demirjian, David A. Fahrenthold, Amy Gardner, Anne Gearan, Emily Guskin, Paul Kane, Beth Reinhard and John Wagner contributed to this report. 

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