WASHINGTON – Democrats seized control of the House while Republicans held the Senate on Tuesday in a national referendum on President Donald Trump that drew record numbers of voters to the polls and opened the door to tougher oversight of the White House over the next two years.
The dramatic conclusion of the most expensive and consequential midterms in modern times fell short of delivering the sweeping repudiation of Trump wished for by Democrats and the “resistance” movement. But Democrats’ takeover in the House still portended serious changes in Washington, as the party prepared to block Trump’s agenda and investigate his personal finances and potential ties to Russia.
An immediate post-election change to Trump’s Cabinet came Wednesday when Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned at the president’s request. Trump, who said to expect staff changes after the midterms, had repeatedly eviscerated Sessions’s performance.
“We thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his service, and wish him well! A permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date,” Trump tweeted.
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Trump had declined to answer a question about Sessions’ fate hours earlier at a combative news conference where he vowed to adopt a “warlike posture” in response to any attempt by House Democrats to investigate his administration.
Democrats have gained more than the 23 House seats needed to win a majority. But some other key races remained too close to call, including the Senate contests in Arizona and Florida and the gubernatorial matchup in Georgia. Republicans appeared to lead in all three as of Wednesday afternoon.
House Democrats are prepared to launch investigations of Trump and to closely scrutinize his policies on immigration, education and health care. But they are wary of immediately pursuing impeachment, concerned that such a move would undermine lawmakers who represent districts that Trump won in 2016.
Trump said that investigations launched by the House would jeopardize prospects for bipartisan deals on issues such as trade, infrastructure and prescription drug costs.
“They can play that game, but we can play it better, because we have a thing called the United States Senate,” Trump said, referring to GOP control of the upper chamber. ” . . . I think I’m better at that game than they are, actually, but we’ll find out.”
In a new talking point, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., cautioned Democrats against engaging in “presidential harassment” in the form of overly aggressive oversight.
“The Democrats in the House will have to decide just how much presidential harassment is good strategy. I’m not sure it will work for them,” he told reporters Wednesday.
At her own news conference, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., credited the Democratic victory in the House to the party’s focus on health-care issues. She said Democrats have a “responsibility for oversight” but said committees’ efforts would not be “scattershot.”
“We’ll know what we are doing and we’ll do it right,” she said.
Jockeying for House leadership positions began in earnest on Wednesday, though lawmakers are not due back in Washington until next week. Pelosi is widely considered to be the front-runner to retake the speaker’s gavel, though dozens of Democratic candidates had called for new leadership during the campaign.
Trump himself threw support behind Pelosi’s bid, tweeting Wednesday that she “has earned this great honor!” and that the GOP will “perhaps” lend her some votes if Democrats “give her a hard time.”
On the Republican side, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio said in an interview with Hill.TV that he would challenge Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California for the role of minority leader. The move, while expected, underscored conservatives’ desire to expand their power within the GOP conference after a bruising election.
House GOP leadership elections are scheduled for Nov. 14.
On Tuesday, Republicans won hotly contested Senate races in Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Tennessee and Texas, with Trump’s racially charged warnings about undocumented immigrants and demonization of Democrats appearing to help withstand the “blue wave” the GOP once feared.
But Democrats – propelled by a rejection of Trumpism in the nation’s suburbs and from women and minority voters especially – notched victories in areas that just two years ago helped send Trump to the White House.
Women played a pivotal role in Democratic victories.
The Democratic Party won their support by 19 points, the largest margin in the history of midterm exit polling, compared with their margin of four points in 2014, according to network exit surveys from CNN. Independent women voted for Democratic candidates by a 17-point margin after narrowly supporting Republicans in 2014. And white women, a reliable voting bloc for the GOP, split their votes evenly between the two parties this year, after favoring Republicans by 14 points in 2014 and by 19 points in 2010.
Voters under 30 also favored Democrats this year by a 35-point margin over Republicans, compared with an 11-point margin in 2014, the polls found.
The Democrats’ new House majority was also propelled by a record number of female candidates. Women hold 84 House seats, but that share is projected to expand to 100 or more when all results are tallied. Across the country, 277 women were on the ballot Tuesday for Congress and governorships, an unprecedented number that included 210 House candidates.
Overall, the party picked up at least seven governorships, performing well across much of the upper Midwest and even in Kansas, where Laura Kelly was elected governor over Trump’s handpicked candidate, Kris Kobach.
In Wisconsin, Democrat Tony Evers bested Gov. Scott Walker, once a Republican star who ran for president in 2016. Walker survived a hard-fought recall vote in 2012 and was reelected in 2014, only to be denied a third term by the state schools superintendent.
But Democrats were disappointed elsewhere. Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Claire McCaskill of Missouri were defeated, while Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., his reelection in doubt, said his race was proceeding to a recount.
Democrats kept two hotly contested Senate seats in West Virginia and Montana and picked up one in Nevada, where Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen prevailed over Republican Sen. Dean Heller.
Rosen, who by early Wednesday was the lone Democratic challenger to beat a Republican incumbent in the Senate, cast her victory as a counterpoint to the racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric that had marked the closing days of the midterm campaign.
Two of the liberal movement’s greatest hopes for this election cycle, Democrats Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, struggled to overcome some of the most overt racial attacks since the civil rights era and make history as the first black governors in Georgia and Florida, respectively.
While Gillum conceded to Republican Ron DeSantis, a Trump ally, Abrams told supporters she would not concede to Republican Brian Kemp while the race was too close to call. If each candidate earns less than 50 percent of the vote, they would go head-to-head in a December runoff election.
Another Democratic star, Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, lost his spirited challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz, R, despite raising record sums of money and attracting grass-roots support throughout the country.
Midterm elections traditionally are referendums on the party in power, but Trump sought to ensure that this one would be a referendum on his presidency.
Returning to his 2016 campaign playbook, the president delivered fiery speeches that drew massive and enthusiastic crowds but contained a breathtaking barrage of falsehoods, invective and demagoguery. Describing himself in the closing weeks as a “nationalist,” Trump made a caravan of Central American migrants preparing to seek asylum in the United States a dominant theme.
The racial overtones put that explosive form of politics on the ballot, with major stakes for Republicans. The GOP is now overwhelmingly white, while Democrats have a much more multiethnic coalition that represents the direction in which the country’s demographics are heading.
Former president Barack Obama congratulated Democrats for “electing record numbers of women and young veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, a surge of minority candidates and a host of outstanding young leaders.”
“The more Americans who vote, the more our elected leaders look like America,” Obama said in a statement Wednesday.
The Senate results underscored just how much the Republican Party has morphed into the party of Trump. The incoming freshman class of Republicans is made up largely of Trump allies – including Mike Braun in Indiana, Josh Hawley in Missouri and Kevin Cramer in North Dakota – who campaigned as supporters of the president’s agenda and owe their new jobs, at least in part, to his energetic campaigning on their behalf.
Tuesday’s results were set to transform the House in terms of gender, age and ethnicity. The new Democratic majority will be more female and more ethnically diverse, while the House Republican Conference will be more white and male.
Republican-held districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 provided the backbone of the Democratic efforts to win the House majority. But the Democratic momentum was not strong enough to carry some prized recruits, such as former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, who lost to Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr, R, in Kentucky, over the finish line.
In some ways, the outcome was eerily similar to that of 2016, with late polls overestimating the Democratic advantage in enthusiasm and Republicans showing unanticipated resilience, thanks in part to Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and focus on nativist themes.
Racial tensions that had been simmering beneath the surface for years came to a boil in the final weeks of the campaign. Robo-calls in Georgia featured a voice impersonating Oprah Winfrey and calling Abrams “a poor man’s Aunt Jemima.” In Florida, robo-calls mimicked Gillum as jungle sounds and chimpanzee noises were heard in the background.
Trump called Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, “not equipped” and Abrams, a leader in the Georgia state legislature, “not qualified” to be governors.” On Monday, all the major television networks rejected a Trump campaign advertisement about immigration, calling it offensive.
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The Washington Post’s Philip Bump, Scott Clement, Karoun Demirjian, David A. Fahrenthold, Amy Gardner, Anne Gearan, Emily Guskin, Paul Kane, Beth Reinhard and John Wagner contributed to this report.