The promise of a red wave receding, Republicans on Wednesday faced the stark reality that any return to power would mean presiding over a narrowly split Congress, and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy was weakened by the party's dismal performance as he reaches for the speaker's gavel.
If Republicans pick up the remaining seats needed to break the Democrats’ one-party hold on Washington, McCarthy could rise to the position he has long wanted, but he would almost certainly be diminished, like so many other GOP speakers before him who were forced out or chose early retirement.
“Look, we were told we were going to have an incredible, incredible wave,” said Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, in an online streaming show.
“If that would have been the case," with a 20-, 30- or 40-seat margin, "you would say, 'Well, OK, Kevin is the presumptive Republican nominee for speaker. But I think we need to have a serious discussion.”
Meanwhile in the evenly divided Senate, the battle for control remained in flux in close races in Arizona and Nevada, and the Georgia race headed to a Dec. 6 runoff.
Republicans ran into stiff competition in their march across the country, dashing hopes for the sweeping gains they had promised. Instead they inched toward what could be another Congress in which the two parties are separated by just a few seats.
If Republicans prevail, such an outcome in the House would pose a great challenge for the GOP and particularly for McCarthy.
He would need to lasso a new generation of Republicans, many of them outsiders and newcomers inspired by former President Donald Trump and eager to confront President Joe Biden with investigations.
McCarthy would have little room to maneuver in a narrow House where each member can leverage their vote to advance personal priorities.
Routine votes to fund the government or raise the nation's debt limit would then have the potential to trigger crises and gridlock across federal operations, as has happened in the past.
McCarthy has been here before. He sought the speaker’s gavel in 2015, only to see it slip from his grasp in a backlash from the party's conservative flank.
“Earning the majority is only the beginning,” McCarthy wrote Wednesday in a letter to colleagues asking for their support to become speaker ahead of an internal party vote scheduled for next week.
“Now we will be measured by what we do with our majority," McCarthy said. “Now the real work begins.”
While no rivals emerged publicly Wednesday to challenge him, stirrings of the difficulty ahead for McCarthy were clear as far-right members threatened his ambitions.
Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida renewed his support for Rep. Jim Jordan, a founder of the Freedom Caucus and a previous challenger to McCarthy for the gavel.
Jordan has signaled that he would back McCarthy.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi's future also remained uncertain. A narrowly held House could prompt her and other Democratic leaders to stay in office rather than retire, as many expected would happen if Democrats suffered a wipeout.
On a midday call with the House Democrats' campaign team, Pelosi briefed lawmakers on the party's “remarkable achievement,” according to a person familiar with the call who spoke on condition of anonymity. Lawmakers were told there was still a narrow path for Democrats to hold control.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Biden said he has not had much occasion to talk with McCarthy. While the makeup of the House remained to be seen, the president said he was “hopeful" that he and McCarthy could "work out a modus vivendi," or an agreement to coexist.
With only a slim majority, Republicans could still bring a new intensity to Capitol Hill and threaten to end Biden’s most ambitious plans.
But the mood among Republicans was tense as Democrats delivered a surprising run of the map in places Republicans expected to claim as their own.
“The RED WAVE did not happen,” defeated Republican Rep. Mayra Flores of Texas said in a tweet.
McCarthy tried to remain upbeat as he addressed a crowd of supporters early Wednesday in Washington.
Republicans were slowly amassing some of the five seats needed to reach a 218-seat House majority.
But it was a grinding battle. Republicans picked up wins in some states but lost others. It was far from the massive gains the GOP had predicted when the party was confident that Biden's lagging approval rating and high inflation would turn voters away from Democrats.
Blame was swift and brutal Wednesday, falling less on McCarthy — who raised millions for his party's effort — but on his top campaign chief, Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., whose strategy was seen as lacking.
McCarthy had recruited the most racially diverse class of House GOP candidates, with more women than ever. But it also included a new cadre of Trump loyalists, including election skeptics and deniers, some of whom were around the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Trump endorsed hundreds of candidates nationwide in this election cycle, though they were not always the first choices of McCarthy and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. In an interview on election night, the former president said he backed McCarthy for speaker, and he derided his old foe McConnell as a “lousy leader,” according to Fox News.
McCarthy had been eager to celebrate the defeat of the House Democrats' campaign chairman, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, in New York. He was the first Democratic campaign chief to be ousted in decades.
But Maloney's high-profile loss became a rallying point as he used his concession as a sign of the health of America's democracy.
“I don’t think the American people have given up on democracy,” Maloney said at Democratic campaign headquarters. “With all of the headwinds, and all of the damage from the pandemic and the Trump years, there’s still a beating heart to American democracy.”
Vote counting extended beyond Election Day in many states, and the Georgia Senate race headed to a Dec. 6 runoff because no candidate achieved a majority.