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As Washington woke up Tuesday morning, the consensus among establishment-minded insiders pointed to a red wave, one that would easily give Republicans a majority in the House and better-than-even odds at winning the Senate. As Washington dozed off Tuesday evening, things were far more hazy, with a crimson tsunami failing to wash Democrats from their House majority and pick-up chances in the Senate seeming to downgrade from hurricane to a drizzle.
A thumpin’ it was not, but rather a shellacking that never was. Most Democrats still think their majority in the House is in the rearview mirror, but hardly the 63-seat slap that Barack Obama endured in his first midterms or the 54-seat rejection that met Bill Clinton’s first at-bat with votes. Even though exit polls showed President Joe Biden underwater with a 45% job approval rating, his party out-performed polls that showed Republicans coasting to victories from Maine to even California.
As the clock ticked past midnight, Republicans seemed on track to win the majority, but only just barely. Republicans needed to pick up just five net seats, and the results so far hint a GOP-held gavel in the offing, having netted six seats. Winning 218 seats gives Republicans a majority, but not one that can govern if dissent is common. And unity in the GOP caucus is far from assured, especially with factions led by traditional conservatives, Donald Trump-modeled trolls, and far-right activists all looking at making their mark by flaming intra-party rivals.
Which is why everyone turned their eyes to Kevin McCarthy, who is expected to launch a second bid for House Speaker in the coming days. He’s the top Republican in the House at the moment, and he hustled a ton to help down-ballot allies save their seats and new friends win. A glad-handing natural, he ran recruitment in 2010 when the Tea Party wave gave the GOP its majority, and most lawmakers have no problem phoning his cell with any manner of questions, from legislation to political instincts.
McCarthy as a Speaker with the slimmest of majorities—whether it’s 218 seats or a few more—will have a much tougher time running the chamber than, say, a 225- or 230-vote chief. A narrow majority gives his right flank effective veto power over the party’s agenda, and it gives the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene control over McCarthy, as TIME’s Molly Ball reported back in June. Trump could sway the Speaker race in short order should he decide McCarthy is to blame for the GOP’s slim win, and there are any number of Trump acolytes in the House who would be more reliable puppets to the Mar-a-Lago agenda.
McCarthy can have moments of strategic smarts, as evidenced in recent weeks as he sent a warning shot about the fragility of funding for Ukraine should the GOP win the majority. He is also a figure who really likes to, well, be liked. In order to build a connection with Trump, he picked out red and pink Starburst candies for the president. He can be painfully confrontation averse. After seething about Trump’s role on Jan. 6, 2021, he made a pilgrimage to Florida to court the then-ex-President. And, in that internal conflict, McCarthy may end up becoming his own worst enemy as he chases the No. 3 elected job in the federal government.
The Senate battle, meanwhile, remained up in the air and seemed likely to stay there. Democrats held a 50-50 majority thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. Party leaders’ fears over vulnerable incumbents Maggie Hassan, Michael Bennet, and Patty Murray proved false. Their hopes of picking up Ohio came up short, but the Democratic nominee in Pennsylvania claimed victory after several news organizations called the race for him. Georgia was a nail-biter and seemed heading toward a runoff. The Senate races in Arizona and Nevada were still unfolding, but not blow-outs either way. In short: the Senate could see a very slight shift, or none at all.
Polls and pundits alike were counting on a seismic remaking of Washington come January. In the end, it seemed like a shudder and defense of the status quo. Races were still being called, ballots counted. But the complete remaking of Washington doesn’t seem in the offing. And, in that, the 118th Congress may look a whole lot like today’s 117th—a remarkable resolution to a fight that cost almost $17 billion.
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