WASHINGTON — House Republicans were headed to a second straight victory Tuesday, ensuring the GOP retains a legislative stronghold to push a conservative agenda of fiscal austerity regardless of who won the presidency.
After Democrats and Republicans spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to define — and defend — the "tea party Congress," House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, was poised to emerge from Tuesday's elections with limited losses and possible gains.
By holding on to the House, Boehner ensures that his conservative caucus will be a key player in fiscal negotiations in the months ahead, probably renewing its legislative clash with Senate Democrats, who are favored to maintain control of the upper chamber.
Boehner vowed to continue the conservative track that House Republicans have taken the past two years, arguing that the expected results were a validation of their approach.
"Over the last two years, the Republicans in the House have listened to the American people and followed their will. But we've had no cooperation from the Senate and no cooperation from the White House," Boehner said after casting his ballot in the southwestern Ohio district he has represented for 22 years.
Strategists in each party, as well as independent analysts, projected a similar result to the 242-193 margin that resulted from the 2010 midterm elections, with Democrats still hopeful to pick up a net gain of a handful of seats.
The expected Democratic defeat left in doubt the political future of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who for months had publicly and privately predicted huge gains for Democrats and a possible recapture of the chamber's majority. Pelosi allies have signaled that she is likely to remain in her leadership post should GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney win. But they have indicated that she may relinquish her leadership role if President Barack Obama is re-elected and Senate Democrats remain in charge.
House Democrats declared "the end of the tea party" in a memo before election returns began coming in Tuesday night. Their strategists pointed to the difficult re-election fights for several of the most outspoken conservatives in the House, including Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Joe Walsh (Ill.) and Allen West (Fla.) . Democrats also noted that many others who rode in on tea party support two years ago tried to reposition themselves as mainstream Republicans to face this year's electorate.
"House Republican incumbents — and their candidates — are running as far away from the Tea Party as they can," the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee declared in its memo.
The GOP performance defied early expectations that Republicans' historic 2010 gains would be followed by steep losses this November — the historical pattern after large wave elections such as the 63-seat gain for Republicans two years ago.
Experts have noted that the Republican strategy after 2010 was to use the decennial process of redistricting to fortify as many of the 87 freshmen as possible for the 2012 races. Rather than trying to seek large gains, Boehner's team worked with GOP-controlled state legislatures, which draw district maps, to shore up those freshmen in new districts.
Of the more than 80 GOP freshmen standing for re-election, just a dozen or so were expected to lose.
Both parties were poised to have several historical markers after these elections. In the North Shore of Massachusetts, former state senator Richard Tisei was favored to defeat a veteran, scandal-plagued incumbent to become the first Republican to win as an openly gay candidate. In Utah, Mia Love, the mayor of Saratoga Springs, was in a tossup race with Rep. Jim Matheson in her effort to become the first black Republican woman elected to Congress. In Hawaii, Democrat Tulsi Gabbard was the favorite to win an open seat and become the first Hindu American in Congress.
Gabbard's expected victory is part of the continuing diversification of House Democrats that most believe will leave their caucus of close to 200 members with a majority of women and minorities. If that occurs, it will be the first time in history that a House or Senate party caucus does not have a white male majority.
Some candidates were expected to win despite their own scandals. In Chicago, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., who ran a vigorous primary campaign in a newly drawn district that went deep into the suburbs beyond his South Side base, has not been seen in public since early June, when he entered a treatment facility for what his doctors said was bipolar disorder. He was expected to easily win re-election in his heavily Democratic district, but his aides have still not signaled when he will return to the Capitol.
In Staten Island, freshman Rep. Michael Grimm (R) was favored to win re-election despite an active FBI investigation into his campaign finances from his 2010 race. In the last 10 days of the campaign, after Hurricane Sandy's destruction of his district, Grimm was a frequent presence on his district's streets and in media appearances pleading for help.
The redistricting process also created several incumbent-vs.-incumbent races, including a pivotal race in Cleveland's suburbs pitting freshman Rep. Jim Renacci (R) against Rep. Betty Sutton (D). That race could serve as a harbinger of the presidential race as well. Renacci, an entrepreneur who has owned several businesses, embodies the GOP business mantra embraced by Boehner and Romney. Sutton, a member of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, represents her party's prior successful effort to appeal to exurban and rural voters with a mix of fiscal conservatism and socially liberal views.
Newly elected members will arrive in Washington next week for orientation sessions, just as Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, D-Nev., will renew their two-year battle over fiscal policy that included several bouts of brinkmanship that nearly shut down the federal government and almost led to the first default on the federal debt.
That result left congressional approval ratings hovering around 10 percent, a number that grew to 21 percent, according to Gallup. That still left the 112th Congress as the most unpopular in the history of polling. The growth in popularity was largely attributed to the lack of attention given to Congress as the public largely shifted its focus to a neck-and-neck contest for president.