WASHINGTON—Millions of voters flocked to the polls Tuesday to render their first national verdict on the Donald Trump presidency, and the results gave Democrats a House majority while Republicans retained their control of the Senate.
The outcome tests the appetite of both sides—Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate and White House—to work together after years of partisan tribal warfare often marked by personal attacks
Beyond Washington, Democrats won several high-profile governor’s races, including in Kansas, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota. But they lost their bid for governor of Ohio, and in Florida, Democrat Andrew Gillum, seeking to be the state’s first black governor, conceded defeat to his GOP rival, Ron DeSantis.
The result poses new obstacles to the GOP president during his next two years in office. Democrats are expected to launch major investigations of his administration and will have leverage to impede major elements of his legislative agenda, such as cracking down on illegal immigration.
The results reflected divisions within the electorate about the president and all the major issues facing the nation, with health care and immigration topping the concerns.
Mr. Trump loomed large after having barnstormed the country telling supporters he wanted the midterms to be a referendum on him. Voters got the message: 64% said he was a factor in their vote, and more came out to express opposition than came out to express support, according to AP VoteCast, a pre-election and Election Day survey of about 90,000 people who said they voted in the midterms or intended to do so.
As the returns came in, Mr. Trump hosted longtime friends, cabinet members, administration aides and Republican strategists at a low-key gathering in the East Room of the White House.
As the party began, the president’s guests were worried Republicans would have a worse night than proved to be the case. Late in the evening, when it became clear the GOP would hold the Senate, Mr. Trump sent out a tweet calling the night a “tremendous success.”
At about midnight, the president called Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, to acknowledge that her party had taken control of the chamber. Before the call, Mrs. Pelosi had greeted cheering supporters in Washington. “Tomorrow will be a new day in America,” she said, promising that a Democratic House would “restore checks and balances” to the Trump administration.
The election results, a patchwork of disappointments and victories for both sides, paint a portrait of two parties in the process of realignment. Republicans, remaking themselves largely as the party of Trump, ran up big margins among rural voters and white men. That cost them suburban seats like the one held by GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. She became the first Republican incumbent to lose early Tuesday evening; she was defeated by Democrat Jennifer Wexton.
Democrats, meanwhile, won support from young people, suburbanites, people of color and women. They worked to reassert themselves in states that Mr. Trump won narrowly in 2016, including Michigan, where Gretchen Whitmer beat Republican Bill Schuette for the governorship. In the Senate, Democrats who won re-election included Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, who said that his party in 2020 should learn from his success running on bread-and-butter economic issues.
“We will show America how we celebrate organized labor and all workers,” Mr. Brown said. “That is the message coming out of Ohio in 2018, and that is the blueprint for our nation in 2020.”
But Democrats fell short in Trump strongholds like Indiana, where Republican Mike Braun ousted Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly despite his efforts to portray himself as a centrist able to work with a president who is popular in his state. They also lost a high-profile bid for an upset in Texas, where incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz defeated Beto O’Rourke.
Jeff Horwitt, a Democratic polling adviser, said the most important thing for Democrats was to take control of the House and make gains in state houses. Democrats needed a net gain of 23 House seats coming into the evening.
“In that respect, mission accomplished,” he said. “At the same time, Donald Trump was successful in dividing the country and gaining ground in red America.”
Micah Roberts, a GOP polling expert, said that a House gain of 30 seats wasn’t as bad as the party had braced for, though the final number of Democratic pickups was unclear as of late Tuesday night. “We know what an angry electorate can do to a party in power, and this is well shy of what a really angry electorate can do,” he said.
Also on the ballot were 36 gubernatorial races and thousands of state legislative seats—bastions of power that will be crucial to the process of redrawing political lines after the 2020 census.
America Speaks: Why Voters Went to the Polls
The Wall Street Journal asked voters around the country one question: “Why did you come out to vote today?” Here is what they said.
Democrats are laboring to recover from crippling defeats their party suffered over the past decade, when it lost nearly 1,000 state legislative seats. Before Tuesday’s elections, Republicans held 33 of the nation’s governors’ seats, and Democrats had 16; one governor is an independent.
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The election came at a time when the electorate is generally upbeat about the state of the economy: 65% in the AP survey of voters said the condition of the economy was excellent or good. Of those voters, 37% voted for Democrats, and 59% voted for Republicans.
The survey suggested that Democrats made a good call in making health care their top issue: It was identified as the No. 1 issue to voters. About one quarter of respondents said it was the most important issue, followed by immigration—an issue Mr. Trump pushed in the final weeks. The economy and jobs rounded out the early results at the No. 3 spot.
The survey suggested that any Democratic gains were to be powered in part by a large gender gap: Women broke 56%-38% in favor of Democrats, an 18-point gap. Men favored Republicans over Democrats 49% to 46%.
Democrats were also winning among young people, taking 61% of voters aged 18 to 29. The party was also winning voters aged 30 to 44 and aged 45 to 64, groups that combined make up nearly three quarters of the electorate. Republicans only carried voters aged 65 and older and by a single percentage point, 49% to 48%, the survey showed.
The survey underscored a key reason Republicans had a good chance of holding on to their majority of the Senate: Most of those competitive races were being fought in mostly-rural states like Montana and North Dakota, and the survey found that 56% of rural voters cast their ballots for Republicans, while 39% favored Democrats.
On the other hand, the GOP was much weaker among suburban voters who make up a much larger share of the electorate and were at the center of the fight for control of the House. They split 52%-43% in favor of Democratic candidates.
Analysis From the WSJ Newsroom
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The survey also found a deep split in how members of the two major parties view race in American society. Among people who believe whites have more advantages than blacks, 81% are Democrats. Among those who believe the split is reversed and blacks have more advantages than whites, 77% are Republicans.
Republicans had hoped that the Senate fight this fall over the Supreme Court nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh would get its voters more energized about the midterm elections. The survey suggests that it was more important to Democrats: 54% of the people who said the Kavanaugh nomination was important to their vote supported Democrats; 42% of them supported Republicans.
—Peter Nicholas and Reid J. Epstein contributed to this article.
Write to Janet Hook at email@example.com