By Lisa Mascaro / Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Democrats picked up at least 10 Republican-held House seats across the eastern half of the country in early returns Tuesday but fell short in a closely watched race in Kentucky as they fought to wrest control of the chamber from the GOP.
Democrats needed a net gain of 23 seats to break the Republicans’ eight-year hold on the House and gain a check on President Donald Trump.
The Democratic gains included several suburban districts eyed for turnover because they were won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the Miami area, former Clinton administration Cabinet member Donna Shalala won an open seat, while GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo lost his bid for a third term in another district.
In the suburbs outside the nation’s capital, Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock — among the most endangered GOP incumbents, branded Barbara “Trumpstock” by Democrats — lost to Jennifer Wexton, a prosecutor and state legislator. Wexton was among the record number of women running this year.
And in Kansas, Democrat Sharice Davids beat a GOP incumbent to become the first Native American and gay woman elected to the House.
But in Kentucky, one of the top Democratic recruits, retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, lost her bid to oust to three-term Rep. Andy Barr in the Lexington-area district.
Pennsylvania looked particularly daunting for Republicans after court-imposed redistricting and a rash of retirements put several seats in play. Democratic favorite Conor Lamb, who stunned Washington by winning a special election in the state, beat Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus in a new district. At least three other red districts flipped to blue.
As Election Day unfolded, Democrats were increasingly confident, predicting a House majority on the strength of voter enthusiasm, robust fundraising and unusually fresh candidates.
Democratic control of the House would break the GOP’s monopoly on power in Washington and would almost certainly bring an onslaught of investigations of Trump’s businesses and his administration.
“I feel confident we will win,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said as the polls opened.
Midterm elections are typically difficult for the party in power, and GOP incumbents were on defense in races across the country. More women than ever were running, along with military veterans and minorities, many of them motivated by Trump’s rise.
The campaign unfolded against a backdrop of jarring political imagery, heated rhetoric and angry debates on immigration, health care and the role of Congress in overseeing the president.
To stem Republican losses, Trump sprinted through mostly white regions of the country, interjecting dark and foreboding warnings about what Democratic power would mean for the nation.
The debate was dominated not by the GOP’s $1.5 trillion tax cuts but by Trump’s dire prediction of “invasion” from the migrant caravan and what he called the “radical” agenda of speaker-in-waiting Pelosi.
GOP Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana predicted his party would retain a slim majority, saying on election eve: “In the end, we hold the House because of the strong economy.”
Health care and immigration were high on voters’ minds as they cast ballots, according to a wide-ranging survey of the American electorate conducted by AP. AP VoteCast also showed a majority of voters considered Trump a factor in their votes.
For Democrats, the road to the 218-seat majority ran through two dozen suburban districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016 and through swaths of Trump country in the Rust Belt and heartland where voters backed the president two years ago.
How women and independent voters cast their ballots was likely to determine the outcome.
Ballot counting could drag in tight races, leaving some races undecided long after Election Day.
Outside Richmond, one-time tea party favorite Rep. Dave Brat faced an unusually strong challenge from Democrat Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA operative motivated to run for office after the GOP vote to gut the Affordable Care Act. Like other Democrats across the country, Spanberger emphasized protecting people with pre-existing conditions from being denied coverage or charged more by insurers.
In a suburban battleground in Atlanta, Republican Rep. Karen Handel won a costly special election earlier this cycle but faced an upstart challenge from Lucy McBath, whose 17-year-old son was shot and killed at a gas station.
The GOP’s hold on the majority was complicated by an unusually large number of retirements as well as persistent infighting between conservatives and centrists, with much of the conflict centered on the question of allegiance to Trump.
In North Carolina, Republicans were struggling to hold onto a seat where Baptist minister Mark Harris ousted a GOP incumbent in the primary. Harris was facing a stiff challenge from Marine veteran and small-businessman Dan McCready.
Republicans had expected the GOP tax plan would be the cornerstone of their election agenda this year, but it became a potential liability in key states along the East and West coasts where residents could face higher tax bills because of limits on property and sales tax deductions.
The tax law has been particularly problematic for Republicans in New Jersey, where four of five GOP-held seats were being seriously contested. Democrat Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor, was favored for a suburban Newark seat that became open after the sudden retirement of the powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee. An open seat that included Atlantic City was also ripe for Democratic pickup by state lawmaker Jeff Van Drew after the GOP campaign committee abandoned Republican Seth Grossman over racially charged comments.
The committee also distanced itself from eight-term Rep. Steve King of Iowa after racial remarks, and his seat was unexpectedly contested in the final week of the campaign.
The fight for control of the House could come down to a handful of seats out West, particularly in California, where the GOP’s one-time stronghold of Orange County voted for Clinton in 2016.
Four GOP seats in Orange County, including two where the incumbent Republicans retired, were in play, along with three other seats to the north beyond Los Angeles and into the Central Valley.
“We always knew these races are going to be close,” said Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, co-chair of House Democrats’ recruitment efforts. “It’s just a very robust class of candidates that really reflects who we are as a country.”