House Republicans and Speaker John Boehner hung onto a stout majority in their party's lone elective foothold in Washington, as Democratic gains exceeded expectations but fell significantly short of the 25 seats they sought to retake control of the chamber.
The makeup of the next Congress—whose Republican conference will have at least 231 members—was the ultimate result of a complex quilt of retirements, redistricting and regional voting outcomes, which included the GOP further consolidating its control of the South while getting shut out entirely in New England. Democrats rolled back some recent GOP gains in more Democratic areas and made inroads into some of the more diverse areas controlled by the GOP, but the total impact of those incursions will depend on a few hundred votes in each of several too-close-to-call Western House races.
Results continue to flow in from those particularly close races, but the early story of the 2012 House elections is that it continued the parties' decades-long trend of sorting themselves into wholly different sections of the country. A related theme of Tuesday's results might be whether a returning Democratic president, a Senate still controlled by Democrats, and a House still held by Republicans will add up to the status quo of Washington gridlock.
If so, it's not because some change hasn't come to Congress. Tuesday's contests, which featured 62 open House districts, ensured that well over one-third of the House members in the 113th Congress will be serving their first or second terms as the nation deals with complicated and pressing policy issues.
Republicans planned the retention of their majority around the South, using redistricting to claim at least three Democratic seats in North Carolina and taking advantage of realignment to easily replace retiring Democratic members in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Meanwhile, Democrats built their efforts on a foundation including the president's home state of Illinois, where favorable redistricting helped the party unseat four Republican members, and the party's northeastern base, where Democrats took back both New Hampshire House seats and leveraged their strong party brand to overcome some weak or scandal-plagued candidates, including a surprising victory by Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass.
Democrats also made narrow gains in some traditionally Republican areas in Florida, Texas, and California, where the pace of demographic change and the party's pull with Latino voters flipped a few more seats from red to blue. Democratic performance wasn't as strong as in 2008 on any level of the ballot, but the House elections were a sequel to that race in an important way: Obama carried nearly every seat that Democrats captured from the GOP, and nearly every seat House Republicans added to their majority was carried by Sen. John McCain four years ago. (Several of the remaining uncalled races, which are very close and could go either way, could change this equation.)
While Democrats consolidated more minority-heavy districts, Republicans also won over a pair of heavily white, working-class districts in Western Pennsylvania and Western New York that were represented by two Democratic special election victors, Kathy Hochul and Mark Critz. Both parties focused heavily on outlier districts in the opposing caucus, figuring that given demographic and political trends, the money they spent to win those seats would go toward owning a permanent district, not renting a short-term pickup that would have to be vigorously defended in two years.
Overall, despite slight inroads and some notable highlights for Democrats—including the return of a Kennedy to Congress—Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and her party could not succeed in their "Drive for 25" push to take back the House majority they lost two years ago. More focus will now fall on Pelosi's immediate future, given another election that leaves her party in the minority.
Washington's continued polarization will also be a hot topic. Before the returns were in, Boehner said at a Washington rally that Americans responded positively to a party that "has been the primary line of defense for the American people against a government that spends too much, taxes too much, and borrows too much when left unchecked."
Boehner thanked Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan for "carrying the banner of our party" and said that if there is a mandate from the election results, "it is a mandate for both parties to find common ground and take steps together to help our economy grow and create jobs, which is critical to solving our debt." But he was unequivocal that on a major GOP issue, as the nation's top Republican and main negotiator with President Obama and Democrats in the fiscal cliff battles, he will not budge: "the American people have also made clear that there is NO mandate for raising tax rates."
As for Pelosi, she had already scheduled internal House Democratic leadership elections for the week after Thanksgiving. The only woman ever to serve as House Speaker offered little hint on Tuesday night of her own future. Instead, during a rally, she focused attention on how the results would "exceed everyone's expectations" by night's end.
Whether Pelosi's fellow House Democrats will find themselves agreeing, as they dissect their showing in private talks over the next few days, is up for debate.