GOP holds onto strong majority in House while Democrats beat back challenge for Senate

William Wright and India Johnson, both freshmen at Old Dominion University, waited in line to vote at Larchmont Elementary in Norfolk, Va.
William Wright and India Johnson, both freshmen at Old Dominion University, waited in line to vote at Larchmont Elementary in Norfolk, Va.
Amanda Lucier/The Virginian-Pilot via Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Obama will again face a divided Congress, as the Republican Party on Tuesday held onto its strong majority in the House of Representatives and Democrats appeared set to maintain their slim advantage in the US Senate and possibly even gain a few seats.

From the Midwest, where Democrats beat back energetic challenges from some conservative Tea Party favorites in Missouri and Indiana, to Virginia, where Tim Kaine, former governor, ousted George Allen, former governor and senator, to keep the seat in the blue column, the outlines of the 113th Congress took shape as voters cast ballots in what some election officials said appeared to be record numbers.

The Democrats had the most to lose this fall, forced to defend 23 of the 33 Senate seats up in 2012.

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Earlier this year, with Democrats going into the election holding a razor-thin margin of 51 to 47 — plus two independents caucusing with the Democratic Party — it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Republicans would retake the upper body.

But the Democratic Party went on the offensive, running aggressive campaigns from Massachusetts to Hawaii — and received help from a series of surprising turns of events, including the retirement of Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine and some missteps by GOP candidates who had been favored to win.

Democrats are assured of at least 53 seats — the same number they have now — assuming newly elected Maine independent Angus King caucuses with Democrats, as expected. Races in Montana, North Dakota, and Nevada were too close to call.

The results mean Democrats will fall far short of the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster.

NBC is projecting the House to be split 239 to 196, with Republicans retaining control — and with Democrats expected to gain just a handful of seats, far short of the 25 they needed to regain the speaker’s gavel.

Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist at QGA Public Affairs and former top Senate aide, called it a “status quo election’’ as results were coming in.

“The question is how is that going to affect a number of major issues, including the debate over the fiscal cliff which is going to define the next four years,” he added, referring to deep disagreements between the parties over how to avoid across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect in January.

As votes rolled in, several closely watched Senate races were breaking for the Democrats.

In New England, Democrats effectively picked up a Senate seat in Maine with the election of King, a former governor and the independent expected to vote with the Democrats, and another seat in Massachusetts, where Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor, beat Republican Scott Brown.

In Connecticut, Representative Chris Murphy, a Democrat, was declared the winner over professional wrestling magnate Linda McMahon to fill the seat held by retiring independent Joseph I. Lieberman.

Democrats also looked to be making a better-than-expected showing elsewhere. In Indiana, for example, the Democratic candidate for Senate, Representative Joe Donnelly, prevailed over state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a Tea Party favorite who earlier this year ousted the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, Richard Lugar, in a primary fight.

And in Wisconsin, Democrat Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay person elected to the Senate.

In Missouri, according to preliminary voting results, another Tea Party champion, Representative Todd Akin, who like Mourdock came under fire for controversial remarks about abortion rights and women’s issues, lost to the incumbent Democrat, Claire McCaskill.

The Senate races this year are also notable for the number of women – 12 Democrats and 6 Republicans – who were vying for entry into the country’s most exclusive chamber.

That surpasses 1992’s “Year of the Woman,’’ when 10 women sought Senate seats.

The Democrats sought to extend an olive branch to Senate Republicans.

“I look at the challenges that we have ahead of us, and I reach out to my Republican colleagues in the Senate and the House,” Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada said after most of the results were in. “Let’s come together. We know what the problems are; let’s solve them,” he said.

In the House, however, Republican House leaders read the vote as a mandate to continue pursuing their agenda.

House Speaker John Boehner expressed little willingness to budge on some key differences with Democrats, particularly on raising taxes to help ease the country’s budget woes — suggesting that Obama and Democrats hardly earned a mandate.

“The American people want solutions — and tonight, they’ve responded by renewing our House Republican majority,” Boehner said during a subdued gathering of Republicans in Washington.

“With this vote, the American people have also made clear that there is no mandate for raising tax rates,” he added. “Listen, we stand ready to work with any willing partner — Republican, Democrat, or otherwise — who shares a commitment to getting those things done.”

Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was more pointed, saying voters across the country “rejected the Democrats’ tax-and-spend agenda.”

“Americans were unwilling to hand the speaker’s gavel back to [House minority leader] Nancy Pelosi because her party chose to double down on the same failed policies that caused her to lose it in the first place,” he said in a statement.

It appeared the 113th session of Congress will convene in January as fractious as the one that will return next week to wade back into a muddle of pressing business to avert a so-called fiscal cliff that threatens to plunge the country back into recession.

“As Yogi Berra said, ‘It’s déjà vu all over again,’ ” said Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. “It will be the same cast of characters putting on the same performance. Nothing’s really going to change.”

But Obama, elected Tuesday to a second term, will also be under immense pressure to show results, added Manley.

“The president is going to have to play a more forceful role in the legislative process,” he said. “That doesn’t mean he needs to put out a new detailed long-range plan, but he does need to make clear he is ready to personally begin negotiating immediately.”