Republicans kept a lock on the U.S. House of Representatives in Tuesday's voting, a crucial victory after the party failed to wrest away the presidency from Barack Obama or the Senate from the Democrats.
But it was unclear early Wednesday whether the Republicans will lose or gain seats. The GOP led with 231 seats to the Democrats' 191 seats while votes were being tallied early Wednesday, according to CNN projections. The Republicans controlled the House by 242-193 going into the election, and all 435 seats were up for grabs.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio described the result as an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to work together, but also as an affirmation of the anti-tax tea party, the upstart movement that helped the Republicans capture the House in 2010.
"If there is a mandate, 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," Boehner said after Obama's re-election. "With this vote, the American people have also made clear that there is no mandate for raising tax rates."
Two years ago, the tea party movement helped Republicans seize control of the House. This election, House Republican candidates were still stressing the core issues that the movement pushed in 2010 -- less government and a focus on cutting federal spending and the deficit -- but GOP candidates were "not wearing the tea party label on their sleeves," one senior GOP strategist working on House races said recently..
Democrats, bolstered by polling that shows that many voters blame the tea party for gridlock in Washington, had tried to pin the label on virtually every Republican incumbent and challenger.
Some of the tea party-backed GOP freshmen who had helped their party secure control two years ago were given the heave-ho Tuesday by voters. They include Reps. Joe Walsh and Bobby Schilling of Illinois, Ann Marie Buerkle and Nan Hayworth of New York and Francisco Canseco of Texas.
House Republicans lost in states that Obama won handily, including four GOP seats in Illinois. At least five Democratic incumbents also lost -- Rep. Ben Chandler of Kentucky, Rep. Larry Kissell of North Carolina, Rep. Leonard Boswell of Iowa, Rep. Kathy Hochul of New York and Rep. Mark Critz of Pennsylvania.
Democratic winners included Rep. John Barrow of Georgia, a moderate Democrat; Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who has been receiving treatment for a mood disorder; and Joseph Kennedy III of Massachusetts.
Along with Boehner, prominent Republicans retained their seats, CNN projected.
Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential candidate, was re-elected to his House seat from Wisconsin. Rep. Eric Cantor retained his seat in Virginia. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota -- who unsuccessfully ran for president in the 2012 election cycle -- was re-elected in a hard-fought race.
Democrats would have needed to pick up 25 Republican seats to regain control.
Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats noted that 58 Republicans represent districts won by Obama in 2008 and pointed to those wins as a template for a successful election night, but shortly after 9 p.m. Tuesday, CNN projected that they would not achieve their goal.
With the bulk of this cycle's competitive races concentrated in districts represented by more moderate members of each party, the outcome of this election could mean an even more polarized House in 2013.
A recent study by the Cook Political Report found that the number of swing districts in the nation dropped from 164 to 99 over the last 14 years. That decline has widened the ideological divide between the two parties.
"There's a remarkable reduction in the number of members who have an incentive to compromise," said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for Cook.
The House will return next week for a lame-duck session until new members take office in January, facing major unfinished business, including how to avoid the fiscal cliff -- the end-of-the-year deadline that looms before huge spending cuts kick in and tax breaks begin to expire, including the Bush-era tax cuts. The fiscal cliff includes automatic, across-the-board spending cuts set to trigger at the beginning of next year if Capitol Hill fails to work out a deficit-reduction plan.
House Republicans will hold leadership elections next Wednesday, with Boehner and other top leaders expected to stay in their posts. House Democrats have postponed their leadership elections until after Thanksgiving.