By Fredreka Schouten, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - The presidential contest is a nail-biter, but voters casting ballots Tuesday were likely to leave the U.S. House firmly in the grasp of Republicans who rode a wave of anti-incumbent anger to historic gains two years ago.
House Republicans headed into Election Day with 242 seats under their control, while Democrats held 193. Democrats could make inroads in a handful of congressional districts, but election forecasters say they probably will fall well short of winning the additional 25 seats needed to seize the majority.
"Twenty-five was always a daunting number," said Jessica Taylor, an analyst with the independent Rothenberg Political Report. "To get there, everything had to go right" for Democrats.
One big roadblock to any sweeping partisan change: the redrawing of congressional districts after the last Census. The 2010 GOP takeover of legislatures in 26 states helped Republicans protect their incumbents in swing districts - while vulnerable Democrats in places such as North Carolina were drawn into more competitive districts.
In addition, the hard-fought presidential race has overshadowed this year's congressional contests, and neither President Obama nor Republican nominee Mitt Romney has had a last-minute surge that could help lift others in their party to victory.
Political observers say any Democratic gains are likely to remain in single digits -- in stark contrast to the previous three election cycles when more than 20 seats have changed hands.
"This is not a big wave election," said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
"We will have a Congress that is very similar ideologically to the one we have now," he said. "We will have a House that tilts to the right, a Senate that is likely to be controlled by Democrats who tilt to the left, and it will be very difficult to reach compromise."
A persistent partisan divide will make it difficult to pass major legislation in the next Congress -- no matter who occupies the White House, political observers say.
Even if the partisan contours remain largely the same, Tuesday's election will bring changes to the U.S. House -- as a combination of retirements and redistricting guarantees that dozens of new members will enter Congress in January.
The election, for instance, could mark the return of a Kennedy to Congress.
Joe Kennedy III, 32, son of a former congressman and the grandson of Sen. Robert Kennedy, easily won the Democratic primary in a new district, which takes in parts of the Boston suburbs. He faces Republican Sean Bielat in their battle to replace liberal icon Rep. Barney Frank, who is retiring.
Overall, nearly 70 competitive seats are in play as several of the 87 House GOP freshmen elected in 2010 face tough challenges, moderate Democrats in the South struggle to retain their seats and incumbents battle incumbents in newly drawn districts around the country.
Dwindling Blue Dogs
GOP-led redistricting in several states put Blue Dog Democrats in less friendly territory, and Tuesday's results made the already shrinking coalition of moderate Democrats in the House even smaller.
Rep. Ben Chandler, a five-term Blue Dog Democrat from Kentucky, became the first House incumbent to lose re-election Tuesday night when the Associated Press declared Republican Andy Barr the winner.
The race was a re-match with Barr, a Lexington attorney whom Chandler beat by just 648 votes in 2010.In this election, Barr sought to tie Chandler to Obama administration policies he says have hurt the state's coal industry.
In North Carolina, Republicans picked up two seats currently held by moderate Democrats. Real estate developer Mark Meadows beat Democrat Hayden Rogers, the former chief of staff to Rep. Heath Shuler, who retired.
Republican George Holding, meanwhile, won the seat of Rep. Brad Miller, another veteran Blue Dog Democrat who opted to retire rather than face re-election. Holding is a former U.S. Attorney, perhaps best known for obtaining a criminal indictment against former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. (A jury later acquitted Edwards of a campaign-finance charge in that case and a mistrial was declared on other charges.)
Other moderate Democrats in North Carolina were locked in close races Tuesday night. Democratic Rep. Larry Kissell faced Republican Richard Hudson. Hudson worked as a congressional aide to several Republican lawmakers and runs a marketing firm.
Another North Carolina Blue Dog, Rep. Mike McIntrye, battled state Sen. David Rouzer, a Republican.
In Georgia, Democratic Rep. John Barrow has remained competitive in a tough battle against the Republican nominee, state Rep. Lee Anderson, for the Augusta-area district. Anderson, a third-generation family farmer, has trailed Barrow in fundraising and shunned debating the incumbent.
The district, redrawn to favor Republicans, is about a third African American. Last month, Barrow sought to appeal to both constituencies in an attention-getting commercial touting his support for gun rights and his endorsement by the National Rifle Association.
In it, he displays his father's rifle and a Smith & Wesson handgun he said his grandfather once used to stop a lynching. "They are my guns now, and ain't nobody going to take them away," Barrow says in the ad.
"He's not running as a Democrat. He's running as John Barrow, good ol' boy," said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "He has made the best of a very bad situation."
Blue Dog losses underscore a demographic shift underway in the Democratic Party toward women and minorities. The non-partisan Cook Political Report predicts white males will make up 46% to 48% of the House Democratic Caucus next year, down from 53% today. (White males make up 86% of the House Republican Caucus, the Cook analysis shows.)
Freshmen in competitive races
One of the most expensive House contests features one of Congress' best-known freshmen.
Florida Republican Rep. Allen West, elected in the Tea Party-fueled wave of 2010, quickly made his mark as a successful fundraiser and a conservative firebrand. The retired Army lieutenant colonel, for example, once estimated that as many as 80 members of Congress were communists.
Headed into Election Day, he was locked in a too-close-to-call race with Democrat Patrick Murphy, a political newcomer whose family owns a construction business.
West has spent more than $13 million to defend his seat to Murphy's $3.4 million, Federal Election Commission records show. Political parties and outside groups pumped in nearly $7 million, according to the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation, which tracks political spending.
In several other races, there were signs of ebbing support for the Republicans swept into office in the 2010 tide.
In New York, GOP Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle tossed out Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei by fewer than 700 votes two years ago. Maffei is back for a rematch, and CQ-Roll Call and the Rothenberg Political Report view Buerkle as one of the nation's most vulnerable Republican incumbents in a Syracuse district that is likely to side with Obama.
In suburban Chicago, meanwhile, outspoken Republican freshman Joe Walsh, who won by 290 votes in 2010, faced a formidable challenge from Democrat Tammy Duckworth, who lost both legs piloting a helicopter in Iraq.
Lawmaker vs. lawmaker
Outside groups have splurged on other competitive races, including the hotly contested battle between Ohio Reps. Betty Sutton, a Democrat, and Republican Jim Renacci, thrown into the same suburban Cleveland district by post 2010-Census redistricting.
Nearly $10 million has flowed into the contest to fuel non-stop television ads that attack Sutton for supporting Obama's health care law and Renacci as an uncaring millionaire.
The other incumbent vs. incumbent contest that pits a Democrat against a Republican is the Iowa showdown between GOP Rep. Tom Latham and Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell, who have served nine and eight terms in the House, respectively. Much of the election has focused on their extensive records - including Boswell's support for key Democratic initiatives, such as Obama's health care law, which Latham opposed.
Nowhere has the lawmaker-against-lawmaker conflict been more intense than the race between Democratic Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman, fighting for the same San Fernando Valley seat in California. A debate last month turned into a physical confrontation.
Berman, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has had the support of California's Democratic leadership against Sherman, known for his tireless retail politics.
Veterans in tough battles
In a closely watched Massachusetts race, Richard Tisei, an openly gay Republican, has gained on eight-term Democratic Rep. John Tierney. Tierney has been politically damaged by the legal troubles of his wife and her family, related to an offshore gambling operation.
In Minnesota, Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party favorite who gained fame with her short-lived bid for this year's Republican presidential nomination, faces a close re-election battle against Democrat Jim Graves, a wealthy hotelier who has put some of his own money into the campaign.
In neighboring Iowa, another conservative Republican, Rep. Steve King, faced off against another politician with a well-known name - Democrat Christie Vilsack, the state's former first lady and the wife of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The political parties and outside groups have dumped millions into the race, making it one of the most competitive fights King has faced in his five terms in the House.
One House veteran in the spotlight was expected to win easy re-election: Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill., who has been on medical leave since June. He has undergone treatment for bipolar disorder and gastrointestinal problems.
Jackson also has been the subject of two investigations. A House ethics committee probe has examined whether he raised campaign money for then-governor Rod Blagojevich in the hopes of winning appointment to Obama's old Senate seat. Jackson has denied any wrongdoing. The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, has reported that Jackson is under federal investigation for allegedly using campaign money to decorate his house.
Rise of minority candidates?
In Utah, Mia Love vied to make history. If elected, the small-city mayor would become the first black, female Republican in Congress. To do so, Love would have to defeat veteran Rep. Jim Matheson, the only Democrat in the state's delegation and the son of a former Utah governor.
Republicans have gone to bat for Love, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, giving her a prominent speaking role at the party's national convention in Tampa and helping her raise campaign money. The Saratoga Springs mayor could be aided by Mitt Romney at the top of the ticket, which is likely to drive turnout in Utah, where many voters share his Mormon faith.
In California, two Latino Democrats are in competitive races against GOP incumbents. Jose Hernandez, a former astronaut, is challenging freshman Rep. Jeff Denham, while physician Raul Ruiz, a farmworker's son who went on to earn three Harvard degrees, is taking on veteran Rep. Mary Bono Mack.