NEW YORK (AP) — Americans deeply dislike Congress, but they are unlikely to change its makeup in Tuesday’s election, which is expected to leave Republicans in control of the House of Representatives and Democrats keeping their majority in the Senate.
No matter who wins the razor-thin race for the White House — President Barack Obama or Republican Mitt Romney — the next chief executive will likely face a divided Congress that shows no inclination to end its dysfunction and bridge its ideological chasm. That will make passing any major pieces of legislation difficult.
More than $2 billion has been spent on a barrage of negative ads in the fight for Congress, where the entire 435-seat House and 33 of the 100 Senate seats are at stake. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican House Speaker John Boehner are likely to retain their posts.
Congress consistently rates low in public opinion surveys, but incumbents still tend to get re-elected. That’s because voters tend to favor their own lawmakers even if they dislike Congress overall. Incumbents also enjoy huge financial advantages in their re-election bids. In the House, another boost for many incumbents is the once-a-decade redrawing of district boundaries, which has just been completed.
Republicans had hoped to wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats, who were defending 23 seats and losing several retiring veterans. But the Republicans’ quest was marred by the explosive comments their candidates in Indiana and Missouri made about abortion, rape and pregnancy. Solid candidates also boosted the prospects of the Democrats, who are poised to retain their 53-47 advantage or in their best-case scenario even increase it by one. Still, Senate Democrats would remain nowhere near the 60-vote supermajority needed to easily pass legislation under Senate rules.
Democratic strategist Steve McMahon said he worries that with a divided Congress “we can probably expect hyper partisanship and gridlock everywhere. It seems like Americans can expect more of the same.”
When the Senate votes are counted, retiring moderates in Maine, Connecticut, Nebraska, North Dakota and Indiana will be replaced, while moderates on the ballot in Montana and Massachusetts could also be gone.
Two of the few remaining Republican-held Senate seats in the Northeast could fall. Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts is now an underdog against liberal Democrat Elizabeth Warren in a race for the seat once held by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a liberal icon. Republicans also are not expected to hold the seat being vacated by Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, who decided to retire earlier this year, frustrated with the gridlocked Congress.
The dozen competitive races in the Senate could produce a few new moderates. In Maine, an independent former governor, Angus King, is expected to win and align with Democrats, though he promises to be a bridge between the parties.
In Indiana, moderate veteran senator Dick Lugar had been expected to easily win re-election, but he lost a Republican primary to state treasurer Richard Mourdock, who was backed by the anti-tax, limited government tea party movement. Mourdock has come under withering criticism after saying in a debate that when pregnancy results from rape, it is “something God intended.” That opened the way for moderate Democratic congressman Joe Donnelly, who has pulled ahead in recent polls.
In Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill had been considered the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent. But another tea party-backed candidate, congressman Todd Akin, won the Republican primary. Akin was disowned by Republican leaders, including Romney, after he remarked in August that women’s bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy in cases of what he called “legitimate rape.” McCaskill has since pulled ahead in the polls.
“That’s extremely frustrating for what everyone thought was a Republican advantage,” Ron Bonjean, a Republican consultant and former top congressional aide, said of the races in Indiana and Missouri.
Some tea party favorites are expected to win Senate races, however, including Republicans Deb Fischer in Nebraska and Ted Cruz in Texas. Former Nebraska governor and senator Bob Kerrey has been gaining ground, but Fischer still leads in the race to replace moderate Democratic senator Ben Nelson, who decided to retire.
The closest Senate races could be in the conservative western states of Montana and North Dakota. Republicans hope congressman Denny Rehberg will defeat Sen. Jon Tester, who won a close race during the Democratic wave election of 2008. In North Dakota, Republican congressman Rick Berg is the slight favorite to defeat former state attorney general Heidi Heitkamp for the seat held by retiring Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad.
If Democrats retain control of the Senate, it would give them a firewall against Republican attempts to overturn Obama’s signature legislative achievement, his health care reform law, before it is fully implemented in 2014. If Republicans manage to gain control of the Senate, they have promised to repeal the law.
No matter who gets elected, expectations for the next Congress will be low. A Bloomberg poll in September found that 55 percent of Americans said Congress will continue to be an impediment no matter who is elected president. Just 32 percent said Congress would get the message that lawmakers need to work together on a bipartisan basis.
In the House, where incumbents tend to get re-elected, Democrats could make some gains, but seem unlikely to pick up the 25 seats they need to take control. While some prominent tea party-backed Republicans could fall, they are expected to remain a force that won’t be easy for Boehner, the speaker of the House.
Among the House races getting attention is a close one in Utah, where Mia Love is vying to become the first black Republican woman elected to Congress.
Another first could be achieved in the tight Senate race in Wisconsin, where congresswoman Tammy Baldwin could become the first openly gay U.S. senator.
While the next Congress will be bitterly divided, Republican strategist Terry Holt said that if the next president is brave enough, he might still be able to overcome the partisan rancor and leave some kind of legislative legacy.
“But there is so much ideological division that you will have to risk your political life to get something done in the next Congress,” Holt said.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Alan Fram, Andrew Miga and Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report from Washington.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.