WASHINGTON – Republicans had renewed control of the House within their grasp early today as the two parties traded gains from the Eastern seaboard to the Southwest.
Shortly past midnight in the East, Democrats had knocked off nine GOP House members – including six members of the huge tea party-backed House GOP freshman class of 2010. That included four Republican incumbents from Illinois and one each from Maryland, Florida, New York, New Hampshire and Texas.
Republicans nearly matched that as their candidates defeated one Democratic incumbent apiece in Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania and picked up an open seat each in Arkansas, Indiana, North Carolina, and Oklahoma held in this Congress by Democrats who retired or ran for another office.
With almost two-thirds of the 435 House races called by The Associated Press, Republicans had won 209 seats and were leading in 28 more.
A party needs 218 seats to control the House. It seemed likely the party mix in the new House would resemble the current one, which Republicans control 242-193, including two GOP and three Democratic vacancies. The pickups were so evenly divided that it was unclear if either party would add to its numbers overall.
Democrats had taken 155 districts and led in 39 others.
Even before renewed GOP control was clinched, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio – re-elected to his seat without opposition – claimed victory and laid down a marker for upcoming battles against President Barack Obama, who was re-elected to a second term in the White House.
"The American people want solutions, and tonight they responded by renewing our House Republican majority," he said at a gathering of Republicans in Washington. "The American people also made clear there's no mandate for raising tax rates."
One of the top fights when Congress returns for a postelection session this month will be over the looming expiration of income tax cuts first enacted a decade ago under President George W. Bush. Republicans want to renew them all, while President Barack Obama wants the cuts to expire for the highest-earning Americans.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., refused to concede. She told Democrats rallying a few blocks away from the GOP rally where Boehner spoke that by evening's end, Democrats would end up "exceeding everyone's expectations and perhaps achieving 25," the number of added seats Democrats would need to gain House control.
Though seven GOP freshmen were defeated, 65 of them were re-elected by early Wednesday morning in the East. Six others were leading in their races, but four were trailing. An exit poll of voters showed that just 21 percent said they backed the tea party, which had fueled the big GOP House gains in 2010.
The GOP's seemingly inevitable victory in the House was a contrast to how the party was performing elsewhere on the national stage. Obama defeated Republican Mitt Romney for the presidency and Democrats hold onto control of the Senate.
Democrats in Illinois controlled the redrawing of congressional districts after the latest Census, and the new lines proved too tough for several incumbent House Republicans. Conservative tea party freshmen Reps. Joe Walsh and Bobby Schilling lost, as did moderate freshman Robert Dold and seven-term veteran Judy Biggert, a social moderate.
Other losing GOP freshmen were Rep. David Rivera of Florida, who was hurt by investigations into his past campaign financing; Ann Marie Buerkle of New York, who lost to the Democrat she defeated in 2010, Dan Maffei; and New Hampshire Republican Charlie Bass, ousted by Ann Kuster, the Democrat he defeated narrowly two years ago; and Francisco Canseco of Texas.
In Maryland Democrats defeated 10-term GOP veteran Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland in a race that was preordained after Democrats controlling the state legislature added more Democratic suburbs near Washington to his western Maryland district.
Embroiled in an unexpectedly tight re-election race was conservative Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.
One victor was Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who was his party's vice presidential nominee on the ticket with the losing presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Another winner was Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., the Chicago lawmaker who took medical leave from Congress in June and has been at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for treatment of bipolar disorder. His only campaigning has been by automated phone calls to voters.
In Kentucky, GOP attorney Andy Barr defeated Democrat Ben Chandler after losing to him by just 647 votes in 2010. Chandler, among a dwindling number of moderate Blue Dog Democrats, has represented the district in Kentucky horse country surrounding Lexington, since 2004 but faced voters who heavily favored Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who easily carried the state over Obama.
Republicans also ousted Rep. Larry Kissell of North Carolina, a two-term veteran who was among several Democrats in the state who faced far tougher districts due to GOP-controlled redistricting.
In Pennsylvania outside Pittsburgh, Republicans defeated Democrat Mark Critz in what was one of the year's most expensive races, with both sides spending a combined $13.7 million.
Also defeated was Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul of New York, who won a 2011 special election to her seat by attacking Republicans for trying to revamp Medicare.
There were 62 districts where no incumbents were running at all, either because they had retired or lost earlier party primaries or because the seats were newly created to reflect the census.
When combined with losses by incumbents, the number of new House members in the next Congress was still below the 91 freshmen who started serving in 2011 – a number unmatched since 1993.
Just weeks ago, Democrats had said they could win the 25 added seats they need to wrest control of the House.
As Obama's lead over GOP challenger Mitt Romney shrank as Election Day approached, Democrats' expectations for coattails that would boost their House candidates shrunk as well.
Republicans, building off their enhanced control of statehouses, also did a robust job of protecting their incumbents and weakening Democrats when congressional district lines were redrawn after the 2010 census, especially in states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
In addition, out of a record $1.1 billion House candidates and their allies spent in this year's races, more than 60 percent of it went to Republicans.
The economy and jobs dominated the presidential campaign, but there was little evidence either party had harnessed those issues in a decisive way at the House level. Both sides agreed that this year's election lacked a nationwide wave that would give either side sweeping strength – as occurred when Democrats seized control in 2006 and expanded their majority in 2008, and Republicans snatched the chamber back in 2010.
Polls underscored the public sentiment that Democrats had hoped they could use to their advantage.
A CBS News-New York Times poll late last month showed just 15 percent of Americans approved of how Congress was handling its job, near its historic lows. And an Associated Press-GfK poll in August showed that 39 percent approved of congressional Democrats while just 31 percent were satisfied with congressional Republicans.