WASHINGTON - Republicans retained their grasp on the U.S. House, and immediately pledged to serve as a check on President Obama's second term and a Democratic-controlled Senate.
Republicans headed into Election Day with 242 seats under their control, and Democrats held 193. While Democrats made inroads in a handful of congressional districts, they were falling 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 Democratic gains were 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.
"President Obama has been given a second chance, but not the right to pursue a second term the way he pursued his first," said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, who oversees Republican election efforts."The People's House serves at the will of the voters, and those voters delivered a resounding message that they want a check on the president."
Even as 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, marked the return of a Kennedy to Congress.
Joe Kennedy III, 32, son of a former congressman and the grandson of Sen. Robert Kennedy, beat Republican Sean Bielat in their battle to replace liberal icon Rep. Barney Frank, who is retiring.
It also meant the return of familiar faces. Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan sailed to victory in one contest Tuesday night - his race for the southeast Wisconsin seat he has held since 1998. State law allowed him to compete in both races at the same time. Ryan is chairman of the influential House Budget Committee.
Overall, nearly 70 competitive seats were in play heading into the election as several of the 87 House GOP freshmen elected in 2010 faced tough challenges, moderate Democrats in the South struggled to retain their seats and incumbents battled 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, Republican businessman Richard Hudson defeated another sitting Blue Dog, Democratic Rep. Larry Kissell.
Republicans picked up two House seats in the state, 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.)
Late into evening, another Blue Dog contest in the Tar Heel state -- between Democrat Rep. Mike McIntyre and state Sen. David Rouzer, a Republican -- was too close to call.
In Georgia, Democratic Rep. John Barrow survived 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.
The other Blue Dog losses, however, 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.)
Democrat-led redistricting helped the party pick up long-held Republican seats in two states.
In western Maryland, Democrat John Delaney defeated 20-year congressman Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, who at 86 is one of the oldest members of the U.S. House. In a Chicago suburb, voters rejected another veteran -- seven-term Republican Rep. Judy Biggert -- defeated by former Democratic congressman Bill Foster. Foster, a physicist, had served a term in another district before losing in 2010.
Democrats also scored a victory in central Florida, where voters backed outspoken liberal Alan Grayson after turning him out of office two years ago. Grayson easily defeated Todd Long, a conservative radio host and lawyer.
"We've stopped the Tea Party tide," New York Rep. Steve Israel, who oversees the Democratic campaign operation, said Tuesday night.
Sessions said his party retained control of the House because "Americans were unwilling to hand the Speaker's gavel back to Nancy Pelosi because her party chose to double down on the same failed policies that caused her to lose it in the first place."
Freshmen in competitive races
The election brought signs of ebbing support for the Republicans swept into office in the 2010 tide.
In suburban Chicago, outspoken Republican freshman Joe Walsh, who won by 290 votes in 2010, was defeated by Democrat Tammy Duckworth, who lost both legs while piloting a helicopter in Iraq.
In another Illinois contest, another first-term Republican, Rep. Bobby Schilling lost to Democrat Cheri Bustos, a former East Moline alderwoman, who was supported by labor unions and EMILY's List, which backs female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights.
New York, GOP Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle tossed out Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei by fewer than 700 votes two years ago. Maffei came back for a rematch and won the Syracuse district Tuesday.
In New Hampshire, meanwhile, Republican Rep. Charlie Bass lost Tuesday to Democrat Ann McLane Kuster in a rematch of their closely contested 2010 race. His moderate district backed Obama in 2008 and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry four years earlier, making re-election an uphill battle for Bass.
Republicans prevailed in other close contests. In a southwest Indiana district -- dubbed the "Bloody Eighth" because its voters routinely toss out incumbents in favor of the opposing party - GOP freshman Rep. Larry Bucshon held off Democrat Dave Crooks.
One of the most expensive House contests featured 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.
Late into Tuesday, 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.
Lawmaker vs. lawmaker
Outside groups have splurged on other competitive races, including the hotly contested battle in which Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Renacci beat
Betty Sutton, a Democrat, after they were 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.
In the other incumbent vs. incumbent contest that pitted a Democrat against a Republican, Iowa GOP Rep. Tom Latham beat Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell.
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, eight-term Democratic Rep. John Tierney won re-election despite the political damage resulting from his wife's legal troubles involving 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, fended off 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.
Another House veteran in the spotlight also won 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 tried to make history, but conceded defeat. Had she been elected, the small-city mayor would have become the first black, female Republican in Congress. Instead, veteran Rep. Jim Matheson prevailed.
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.
By Fredreka Schouten