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Why Republicans wound up with a smaller-than-expected House majority

The Capitol is seen as Congress resumes following a break for the midterm elections on Nov. 14.
J. Scott Applewhite
/
AP
The Capitol is seen as Congress resumes following a break for the midterm elections on Nov. 14.

Updated November 18, 2022 at 1:05 PM ET

Republicans seemed to have everything going for them.

  • President Biden's approval rating was under 50%.
  • The economy is at an uncertain place with high inflation and gas prices, as well as rising interest rates.
  • Generally speaking, Americans have been in a pretty sour mood. Overwhelmingly, people have been saying in polls that the country is on the wrong track.
  • And they had history on their side — president's first midterms are traditionally bad for the president's party, losing on average a net of more than two dozen seats since World War II.
  • They only needed to flip five seats. And yet, it took much longer for the House to be called in Republicans' favor than either party was expecting. And, while they will have the majority, Republicans are likely to wind up with a far smaller one than they were hoping for.

    So what happened?

    It's not as if there was a massive issue-area shift from pre- to post-election. Exit polls showed inflation was the top issue overall and Republicans were far-more trusted to handle the issue than Democrats. And the electorate was whiter than in past elections, reversing a decades-long trend of whites shrinking as a share of the electorate in midterms.

  • Abortion rights were clearly a huge motivator and
  • Voters rejected Trump-backed election-denying candidates up and down the ballot.
  • The two things are related in that it showed voters rejected extremes.

    The exit polls also showed big majorities of voters, for example, thought the Supreme Court went too far in overturning Roe. In Pennsylvania, abortion came in as the top issue. In Arizona, 40% of voters said they were angry about the Supreme Court's decision — and anger is a huge motivator.

    There were so many close races that the extreme Trump-backed candidates likely made the difference between the slim majority Republicans are likely to attain and something much larger — and in the range prognosticators were expecting. He was able to boost many of these candidates through GOP primaries. But an overwhelming number of them lost in general elections in purple states and swing districts.

    And yet the former president, who has fomented distrust in U.S. elections with baseless conspiracies and who inspired the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol in an attempt to hold onto power, announced another run for president Tuesday night.

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    As it stands:

  • Republicans are up to 218-212 with five uncalled races.
  • If current leads hold, Republicans would wind up with a 222-213 majority.
  • That means, Republicans would only be able to lose four votes to pass legislation out of the House starting in January. That could be a major headache for Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. — or whomever becomes the Republican speaker — and leaves them vulnerable to losing the House in two years.

    And though he's wounded by these midterm losses, Trump remains the favorite for the Republican presidential nomination, though less of a sure bet.

    It's quite the box for Republican elected officials. They will be in charge of maintaining a fragile House majority that would likely have been bigger without election-denying candidates on the ballot and was attained in spite of a leader who craves being the center of attention and whose brand has repeatedly proven toxic in general elections in competitive states and districts.

    But Trump's popularity and influence with the base is going to make separating "Trump" from "Republican" difficult for the party in the near future. That's especially true when he controls so much of the party apparatus nationally and at a state level — unless Republican voters overwhelmingly conclude that Trump is largely to blame for the midterm losses and are convinced he gives them a worse chance at winning the presidency than, say, a Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

    To see just how close races are, check out our graphic that shows the margins in each of the remaining uncalled House races.

    Here's where things stand, by the numbers (as of Saturday, 9:17 a.m. ET):

    Representatives-elect during a group photograph outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, US, on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. Congressional Republicans returned to Washington this week adrift and questioning their party's leadership after falling far short of expectations in the midterm elections.
    Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images
    /
    Bloomberg via Getty Images
    Representatives-elect during a group photograph outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. Congressional Republicans returned to Washington this week adrift and questioning their party's leadership after falling far short of expectations in the midterm elections.

    Republicans look like a 222-213 majority is the most likely outcome when all the votes are finally tallied. Rep. Lauren Boebert's races in Colorado's 3rd congressional district is headed for an automatic recount because just 554 votes out of more than 327,000 cast separate Boebert from her Democratic opponent Adam Frisch, a former Aspen city councilman. Frisch has already coneded to Boebert saying there's very little chance the outcome will change. Frisch has already filed to run again in 2024.

    Republicans also continue to lead in California's 13th and 22nd districts, both Democratic-held. If somehow the final vote turned either of those races around, Democrats could pick up another seat, but the vast majority of vote is in in both.

    Reported vote continues to trickle in slowly in California, which has been commonplace in every recent election. The state takes longer to count its mail votes.

    Alaska's 1st congressional district is headed to a ranked-choice voting retabulation and will be decided Wednesday. Democrats hold that seat currently and are favored to hold onto it.

  • Current net pickups: R+8. Republicans have flipped 16 competitive seats to Democrats' 8, according to the AP. (Republicans needed a net gain of 5 pickups to take control this cycle.)
  • With leads: R+9. Republicans are also leading in CA-13, where just 827 votes separate the Republican and Democrat in this open seat.
  • Estimated Republican pick up: 8 to 9 seats.
  • What's left

    Here's the list of uncalled races and who leads in them (as of Friday at 1:04 p.m. ET):

  • CA-3 R+5 (71% in)
  • CA-13 R+865 votes (95 in)
  • CA-22 R+5 (86 in)
  • CO-3 R+554 votes (99 in)
  • AK-1 D+20 RCV (to be decided Wednesday)
  • Strength of incumbents

    It's notable how well incumbents did in these general elections.

  • Just seven incumbents lost (Five Democrats: Luria, Axne, Maloney, Malinowski, O'Halleran, and 2 Republicans: Chabot, Herrell)
  • Sending a message

    Democrats picked up a seat this week in the 3rd Congressional District in Washington state, a district that had been held by a Republican, Jamie Herrera Beutler. But she voted for former President Trump's impeachment and was ousted by the right in the primary.

    There's an irony in the fact that she was ousted because she voted to impeach Trump and, now, a Democrat has taken over that seat. It's indicative of the broader message in this election.

  • Of the three dozen toss-up races, Trump backed nine candidates. Only two won.
  • Note: Please keep in mind that these numbers are fluid and will change as votes continue to roll in. See the latest results here.


    The Senate: Democrats 48, Independents 2, Republicans 49

    (The two independents caucus with the Democrats.)

    With their wins the last two days in Arizona and Nevada, as well as their flip of the Pennsylvania seat, Democrats will retain the Senate.

    It's a remarkable accomplishment for Democrats with a president whose approval rating has been below 50% for more than a year.

    But base energy over the issue of abortion and a slew of Trump-backed candidates, who failed in purple states, proved to thwart a potential Republican Senate takeover.

    What's left

    Alaska: This has been added to the Republican total even though the race is not settled yet, because both leading candidates are Republicans, so this will stay in GOP hands. The question is at this point: which Republican. Incumbent Lisa Murkowski (R) trails Kelly Tshibaka (R) by less than 2 percentage points, or just under 3,000 votes, with 80% in. If neither candidate gets above 50%, this goes to a ranked-choice re-tabulation Nov. 23. Murkowski would likely be favored to win that.

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    Georgia: Incumbent Raphael Warnock (D) and Republican challenger Herschel Walker (R) are headed to a runoff because neither surpassed 50% on the ballot. Warnock missed the threshold by just under 23,000 votes. Democrats have the chance to expand their Senate majority with a win there.

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    What happened since Friday

    Nevada: Democratic incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto took the lead after a batch of votes Saturday night were reported in Clark County. Shortly thereafter, she was declared the winner, clinching Senate control for Democrats. There is still vote to count in Nevada, which we will monitor, including 15,000 provisional votes from Clark County, which could also help Cortez Masto extend her lead.

    Arizona: Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly's lead expanded by about 8,000 votes with the Friday night batch of about 80,000 votes out of Maricopa County. The race was called in his favor quickly after that, though vote counting continues there, and there is a closely watched governor's race, where Democrat Katie Hobbs currently leads Trump-backed Kari Lake, who has made unfounded allegations of fraud in the election.

    Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.