WASHINGTON — Republicans seemed on track to secure two more years of House control in Tuesday’s elections but with erosion of their historic majority, leaving hard-line conservatives with added clout to vex party leaders.
With Donald Trump rousing opposition in many suburban and ethnically diverse districts, Democrats were hoping to gain a dozen seats or more. Chief targets included GOP incumbents in Virginia, New Jersey, Illinois, Florida, Nevada and California.
But both sides anticipated that Democrats would fall short of the 30-seat pickup they’d need to take command of the House for the first time in six years. Democrats have gained that many seats in just five of the 35 elections since World War II, including only once – in 2006 – since the 1970s.
One prized pelt would be eight-term Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who dogged President Barack Obama with probes into the 2012 killings of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, and IRS mistreatment of conservative groups. Another would be Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., from New York City’s suburbs, under fire for reports he’d objected to contributing money for gay GOP congressional candidates.
Some Republicans are preparing “to do everything they can to stop progress in Washington,” Obama said in one late radio ad.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was touting his “Better Way” agenda on revamping the tax code and welfare programs and dismantling Obama’s health care law for next year. In a final fundraising email, he called it “our responsibility as conservatives” to maintain GOP House control.
Trump’s impact on House races seemed spotty and in some districts was counter-balanced by GOP antipathy to Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic rival for president. Republicans were aiming for Democratic-held seats north of Miami and in northern Minnesota and Omaha, Nebraska, and were strongly defending others that once seemed vulnerable in New York, Iowa and Wisconsin.
The GOP’s current 247-188 margin, which includes three vacancies, is a high-water mark for House Republicans since the 270 members they had in 1931. Only several dozen of the chamber’s seats were considered competitive.
Both parties’ candidates and outside groups spent nearly $1.1 billion combined on House campaigns, shy of the $1.2 billion record in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group. Republicans had only a slight financial edge.
Since Ryan ascended to the top House job last fall, the chamber has approved measures addressing anti-drug programs, customs law enforcement, financial relief for Puerto Rico and the Zika virus. But even with the GOP’s formidable advantage, work has stalled on spending bills after hitting objections from conservatives, including the roughly 40 members of the hard-right Freedom Caucus.
With moderate GOP lawmakers likely among Tuesday’s election losers, dissident Republicans’ leverage will likely grow next year. That suggests tougher problems ahead for GOP leaders, with conservative objections likely over a fresh round of budget legislation plus the need to renew the government’s borrowing authority or face an economy-jarring federal default.
A thinner Republican majority could also strengthen conservatives demanding the impeachment of a newly elected President Clinton. Ryan has yet to address that issue directly.
Even Ryan, who’s said he wants to be speaker in the new Congress, is not immune to ire from the Freedom Caucus and other Republicans upset over his refusal to campaign for Trump.
If the GOP margin is whittled significantly, just a handful of disgruntled conservatives could block Ryan from the 218 votes he’d need to retain his post. That could be an embarrassing setback for the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential candidate, who may harbor future White House aspirations, and some Republicans say it might persuade the 46-year-old Ryan to leave Congress.
The year began with Democrats rubbing their hands over the prospects that Trump atop the GOP ticket would produce widespread losses for House Republicans. But many Republicans distanced themselves from Trump and stressed their own issues, with some GOP ads explicitly disavowing him. Other spots linked Democratic hopefuls to Clinton or House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.