WASHINGTON — A deeply divided American electorate delivered a Congress so evenly split that partisan control remained unknown Wednesday morning — and may for some time — after Republican hopes for a major “red wave” dissipated.
Hours after polls closed, dozens of critical House and Senate races remained too close to call. It could be weeks before control of the Senate is settled if the Georgia contest between Sen. Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker is forced into a runoff in December.
It’s a far cry from the decisive early victory Republicans expected to sweep them into power on Capitol Hill, based on recent polls and historical trends. The GOP in anticipation had already drawn up plans to investigate and potentially even impeach President Joe Biden.
Flawed candidates and concerns about abortion rights ended up proving major obstacles to Republicans, who were banking on riding dissatisfaction about the economy and Biden’s low approval ratings into power.
“Definitely not a Republican wave, that is for darn sure,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said live on NBC News. “A wave would have been, like, [winning] New Hampshire and Colorado.”
Ohio Republican J.D. Vance, who falsely claimed the 2020 election was “stolen,” will likely become one of the most prominent national voices among so-called election deniers, as he is now headed to the Senate, NBC News projects. Other Senate and governor candidates who held that view either lost their races or have yet to have them called.
By the early hours of Wednesday, one Senate seat had changed parties: Democrat John Fetterman defeated Republican TV doctor Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, NBC News projected.
Despite intense GOP focus on the race — former President Donald Trump and conservative media fully threw their support behind Oz — Fetterman won while still visibly recovering from a stroke during the campaign. The win flips a seat held by a retiring Republican and diminishes GOP prospects of retaking control of the Senate.
Fetterman’s victory means Republicans must take two of the three outstanding seats held by Democrats: in Nevada, Georgia and Arizona.
Republicans had boasted going into Tuesday that they expected to easily take control of the House, and they were optimistic about polling that showed several Democratic incumbents in trouble.
Instead, there was little for Republicans to cheer about before they headed to bed.
“It is clear that House Democratic Members and candidates are strongly outperforming expectations across the country,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement.
Republicans may still get control of both chambers — but it would come after the glow of election night has faded.
“When you wake up tomorrow, we will be in the majority and Nancy Pelosi will be in the minority,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California predicted in a speech to supporters early Wednesday.
Republicans did make gains in Florida, where they turned Miami-Dade County red as Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio cruised to re-election, according to NBC News projections.
Democratic incumbents were able to hold Senate seats in New Hampshire and Colorado, NBC News projects. And Republicans were able to hold onto seats vacated by retiring senators in North Carolina and Ohio, where Vance defeated Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan.
Meanwhile, the battle for the House remains too close to call. The latest NBC News model forecasts a closely divided House, suggesting that if the GOP wins the chamber, its majority may be smaller than many analysts had expected.
As of the early hours Wednesday, NBC News projects Democrats won 173 House seats and Republicans 198, with 64 races yet to be called. That means Republicans need to win 20 of the outstanding races to secure the 218 necessary for a majority.
Still, Democrats will be lucky to hold their delicate majority in either chamber of Congress, let alone both, setting up more partisan conflict that is unlikely to ebb as attention turns to the presidential contest in 2024, when Biden may once again face Trump.
If Democrats lose either chamber, Biden can expect near-certain obstruction and a halt to his legislative agenda. If Democrats lose the Senate, he will have a hard time getting appointments confirmed for his administration and the courts.
The narrow margins reflect the stark division in the country, fueled in recent years by political, demographic and technological changes that have pushed Americans into more strident and homogenous camps.
The NBC News Exit Poll portrayed an electorate that is deeply dissatisfied with the state of the country and concerned about its future.
Three-quarters of Americans said the economy was “not good” or “poor.” Almost half said their personal finances are worse off than they were two years ago. And almost three-quarters reported being “dissatisfied” or “angry” about the way things are going. Just 5% said they were enthusiastic.
Biden is broadly unpopular, with just 36% saying his policies are helping the country, even among Democratic-leaning groups, like Latinos and voters under 30.
A broad majority of voters (70%) said they believe democracy is “threatened.” Nearly two-thirds of Republicans (66%) said they do not believe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election.
Most voters said they were disappointed or angry about the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. And 60% said abortion should be legal in most cases.
Ballot measures to support abortion rights won in Michigan, California and Vermont, NBC News projects.
Two of Democrats’ biggest national stars lost governor's races. Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams lost her second campaign against Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, NBC News projects. And Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott defeated Democrat Beto O’Rourke, handing O’Rourke, a former congressman, his third electoral loss in a row after he ran for the Senate, president and then governor.