Balance of power: Control of Congress unclear amid Democrats' surprising strength

The control of Congress hung in the balance on Wednesday as Democrats showed surprising strength, defeating Republicans in a series of competitive races and defying expectations that high inflation and President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings would drag the party down.

Following the 2020 election, the Senate has been split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, with Vice President Kamala Harris giving Democrats the deciding vote.

Democrat John Fetterman flipped a Republican-controlled Senate seat that is key to the party’s hopes of maintaining control of the chamber. It was too early to call critical Senate seats in Nevada and Arizona that could determine the majority. 

Republicans were favored to win the House in the midterm elections, heightened by frustration over the economy and advantages in the redistricting process that occurs every 10 years. But Democrats worked to hold their ground, campaigning on maintaining access to abortion and other issues.

As of Wednesday morning, Democrats kept seats in districts from Virginia to Kansas to Rhode Island, while many districts in states like New York and California had not been called.

Democrats also were successful in governors’ races, winning in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — battlegrounds critical to Biden’s 2020 win over former President Donald Trump. But Republicans held on to governors’ mansions in Florida, Texas, and Georgia, another battleground state Biden narrowly won two years ago.

With votes still being counted across the country, Republicans still had the opportunity to win control of Congress. But the results were uplifting for Democrats who were braced for sweeping losses, and raised questions about the size of Republicans’ governing majority if they win the House.

What seats are up for grabs?


FILE - With the autumnal equinox happening on Thursday, the sun rises directly east over the U.S. Capitol dome as seen from the Washington Monument on Sept. 19, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Approximately 470 seats in Congress (35 Senate seats and all 435 House seats) were up for election on Nov. 8.

The seats of five of the six non-voting members of the House were up for election as well, according to

Ballotpedia notes that two special elections for the Senate were also happening. One special election was held to fill the final four years of Sen. Jim Inhofe's (R-Okla.) six-year term that began in 2021. Inhofe announced his resignation effective January 3, 2023.

Democrats collected three seats in the 2020 Senate elections bringing the party's caucus total to 50, including two independents who caucus with Democrats. Republicans held the other 50 seats following the elections. 

What happens if Republicans control the House?

If the GOP gains control of the House, the Washington Post explains that the party could disband the Jan. 6 Committee. GOP leadership hasn’t shown interest in investigating the Capitol riot attack on Jan. 6, 2021, with some members of the party considering investigations against the Jan. 6 committee members.

The Post noted that Republican leaders may be under pressure by some, including Trump, to use their power in the House to investigate Biden and his administration on several policy items including the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago and the investigation into Trump's false election fraud claims.

House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy has already unveiled his "Commitment to America," a broad outline of economic, border security and other policies that the GOP would propose in the early days of the next Congress, the Associated Press reported.

What if Republicans win the House, but Democrats keep the Senate?

If Democrats were to hold the Senate and Republicans win the House, the two chambers would struggle to find common ground on issues. But Republicans could try to win over Democratic Senate moderates on some legislation, the Associated Press reported.

In that case, if Republicans decided to launch an investigation into Biden and his administration, there’s not much Democrats could do to stop them. But the Washington Post reported that Democrats could continue approving Biden’s nominations for judges, which could be the only thing the party could do in a split Congress.

Biden and Senate Democrats have worked to fill empty slots on federal courts nationwide. Appointing judges will impact investigations into Trump and policy disputes, including the president being forced to continue a Trump-era deportation policy, according to the Post. 

What happens if Republicans win the House and Senate?

Republicans only need five (out of 435) in the House to grab the majority and only one out of 35 seats in the Senate. Despite the Roe v. Wade decision, it's still possible for the GOP to control both chambers of Congress, according to the Washington Post.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced a law to ban abortion across the country after 15 weeks. Senate Republican leaders weren’t on board with the idea. However, if the GOP controls the House and Senate, there will likely be a push by Republicans to bring an abortion ban up for a vote, the Washington Post reported.

But with two years to go before a presidential election, Republicans have more incentive to block Biden’s agenda. That means Biden can expect Republicans to block any of his spending requests for pandemic aid, climate change, and anything else that comes up. There could even be shutdown threats as both parties try to gain leverage in spending bills.

The Associated Press reports that a Republican-led Senate could pass bills sent over by a GOP House, putting political pressure on Biden. And the GOP would regain control of committees and, with it, the power to conduct investigations and oversight of the administration. According to the AP, a Republican Senate could also make life difficult for Biden by blocking or delaying passage of the president’s judicial and executive branch nominees.

What happens if Democrats win the House and Senate?

If Democrats kept the House and the Senate, they would likely restart negotiations on some of Biden’s agenda items that were not passed, including his new package of social and economic programs that stalled amid internal Democratic disagreements, the Associated Press reported.

The party in power almost always loses seats in Congress in midterms, and Democrats wouldn’t be affected if they lost a couple of House seats and a Senate seat. If Democrats gained control of the House and Senate, the Washington Post reported that they would have another opportunity to pass national protections for abortion, same-sex marriage, and voting rights. Democrats could also pass laws related to the president’s Build Back Better plan.

Another scenario if Democrats gain control of both chambers is finding a way to prevent former President Donald J. Trump from running in 2024 following the Jan. 6 riot. The New York Times reported in September that Democrats are preparing different ways to disqualify him, including new legislation and preparing lawsuits looking to use a clause in Constitution to label him an insurrectionist.

According to the New York Times, some anti-Trump Republicans and Democrats are worried that Attorney General Merrick Garland won’t pursue criminal action against the former commander-in-chief for his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. The Times explains that even if Trump were indicted and convicted, there isn’t a law banning even him from becoming president. 

What would a Republican House mean for Biden?

Democratic priorities like access to abortion, addressing climate change, and stricter gun control would immediately be sidelined. And most, if not all, of Biden’s agenda, would be effectively eliminated for the final two years of his term, the Associated Press reported.

Still, nothing becomes law without Biden's signature. Bills to fund the government, raise the debt ceiling, and deal with military issues are necessary for the government to function, the AP noted. Those bills are likely to become flashpoints in negotiations between the GOP, Democrats, and the White House.

Biden, who served in the Senate for decades, has often touted his bipartisan credentials and said he wants to work with Republicans. But there would be little interest in a GOP Congress that opposes Biden, according to the AP.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. This story was reported from Washington, D.C.