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Supporters wait for results at the Republican Party of Arizona's 2022 U.S. midterm elections night rally in Scottsdale, Arizona, November 8, 2022.BRIAN SNYDER/Reuters

Control of the U.S. Congress and governorships of key swing states remain on a knife-edge, with Republicans making modest gains in midterm elections Tuesday but failing to achieve a hoped-for wave as a string of their election-denier candidates lost to President Joe Biden’s Democrats.

With tight races across the country, several Republican lawsuits aimed at disqualifying swathes of mail-in ballots and some of former president Donald Trump’s acolytes already lobbing baseless accusations of election fraud, the final result could be fought over for days if not weeks.

A long list of major issues is at stake in the most consequential midterms in decades, with inflation, abortion, undocumented immigration, crime and voting rights all on the ballot. Candidates, parties and campaign groups have poured a record US$16.7-billion into the election.

Republicans are ahead in several Democratic-held House seats on the east coast, but the races are too close to determine who would control the lower chamber. In swing-state Virginia, for instance, the Republicans flipped one Democratic seat but lost in two others.

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In the Senate, the Republicans held key swing seats in North Carolina and Ohio, where J.D. Vance, the author who once criticized Mr. Trump before becoming one of his most vocal boosters, prevailed in his first run for public office.

But the Democrats defeated election deniers in New Hampshire’s Senate race, as well as in gubernatorial contests in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, swing states where voting access could tip the result of the 2024 election, and in Michigan’s election for secretary of state. They also picked up a Pennsylvania Senate seat held by retiring moderate Republican Pat Toomey, as Democratic lieutenant-governor John Fetterman dispatched television doctor Mehmet Oz.

Senate elections in Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada, meanwhile, were still outstanding, as were gubernatorial races in Michigan and Arizona. In Georgia, if neither Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock or football star Herschel Walker win more than 50 per cent of the vote, the pair will face a runoff election next month.

Hundreds of Republican nominees across the country embraced Mr. Trump’s lie that Mr. Biden stole the 2020 election, raising fears that they will try to overturn future election results if given access to the levers of power.

In Arizona, one of the country’s most closely watched voting jurisdictions, a technological glitch caused some ballots to be printed too faintly to be read by vote-counting machines. The problem was quickly explained and fixed, but it provided a pretext for Mr. Trump and his supporters to fuel his conspiracy theory. “Same thing is happening with Voter Fraud as happened in 2020???” he wrote on his Truth Social platform.

“We had a big day today, and don’t let those haters and crooks think anything different,” Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, one of the country’s most fervent election deniers, warned in a speech to supporters in Scottsdale. “If we have to fight through the BS and the garbage, then we will fight through the BS and the garbage.”

The results could prove a blow to Mr. Trump, who is reportedly preparing to announce a 2024 comeback bid as soon as next week. He pushed for the nomination of election-denier candidates over more moderate rivals, only to see many of them crushed.

Pennsylvania’s Republican gubernatorial nominee, Doug Mastriano, organized buses to take people to the Jan. 6, 2021 protest that ended with the storming of the Capitol. Michigan secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo was central to lawsuits that falsely claimed the 2020 election was fraudulent.

In Florida, meanwhile, Mr. Trump’s top potential rival for the 2024 nomination, Governor Ron DeSantis, stormed to re-election victory with a wide margin. So did Marco Rubio, another possible presidential contender. Georgia’s governor and secretary of state, Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger, respectively, who both defied Mr. Trump’s demands that they help overturn the 2020 election, were also re-elected.

Many of the election deniers running in the midterms would not promise to accept the results if they lost, setting the stage for a repeat of the bitter postelection battles that followed the 2020 vote. Republicans are already suing in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin in a bid to have some absentee votes rejected.

Vote counting, meanwhile, is expected to take several days in key states, in part because of Republican-passed laws that don’t allow absentee ballots to be processed ahead of time. In the days before the vote, some candidates signalled that they would use this lag to prematurely claim victory based on incomplete early returns, as Mr. Trump did in 2020.

Because of large differences in how each state tallies its votes – some start with mail-in ballots, others with in-person – many candidates from both parties with early leads could see those erased.

Nick Coteus, a Marine Corps veteran and engineering student, said the Republicans were right to question election results. “I’m not really fond of being told ‘shut up and take it,’ " he said after casting his ballot in Phoenix. Mr. Coteus also agreed with some Republicans’ support for ending military aid to Ukraine as it fights off Russia’s invasion. “It’s not our problem,” he said.

Americans were viscerally reminded of the prospect for violence last month, when an intruder broke into Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco home and bludgeoned her husband with a hammer. The suspect has promoted conspiracy theories about the 2020 election being stolen.

Independent voter Taylor Carr, an Arizona State University business school lecturer, said he had supported Republicans in the past. But this year, he marked his ballot for the Democrats over fears about election denialism.

“The most important thing right now is to push back on Trumpism, and all those who have embraced what Trump stands for and who Trump is. He’s an existential threat to democracy,” Mr. Carr said after casting his ballot in Phoenix.

Democrats campaigned on preserving access to abortion, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year and Republican-run states swiftly moved to ban the procedure, hoping a surge in voting among suburban women would turn the tide for the party. Voters in Michigan, California, Vermont and several other states were voting directly on abortion in statewide referendums. Federally, the Democrats promised a nationwide abortion-rights law.

The Democrats picked up gubernatorial seats in Massachusetts and Maryland, both liberal states with incumbent moderate Republican governors not running for re-election. In Maryland, Wes Moore will become the state’s first Black governor, and in Massachusetts, Maura Healey will be the first woman and first openly gay person to run the state. Both defeated election-denying candidates far outside the states’ political mainstreams.

Republicans, for their part, hammered the Democrats over spikes in the cost of gasoline and groceries, high crime rates in some cities and a rise in undocumented immigration, all of which they blamed on Mr. Biden. They also campaigned on culture-war hot buttons, such as curbing discussions of racism and LGBTQ issues in schools.

Mr. Biden has passed legislation on infrastructure, green energy, gun control and pandemic recovery, pushed student-loan forgiveness and a marijuana amnesty by executive order, and led international support for Ukraine. But he has been dogged by persistently low approval ratings and seen other major pieces of his agenda stymied by Congress.

The Democrats need to keep control of Congress if the White House is to pursue its legislative agenda of voting-rights laws, health care extension and other expansions of the social-safety net, all of which Republicans oppose. Some Republican candidates have also mused about cutting military aid to Ukraine.

Losing either chamber of Congress would require Mr. Biden to more forcefully pivot to foreign policy and climate change, areas he can influence with executive action. He could also expect a string of congressional investigations into the business dealings of his son, Hunter Biden, and several Biden administration policies, including its shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. Republicans would also shut down a legislative committee looking into Jan. 6.

At stake in the Senate, among other concerns, is Mr. Biden’s ability to get appointments, most significantly those of federal judges, confirmed.

At times, the President and other Democrats seemed frustrated that their efforts to run as defenders of democracy were overshadowed by voter concern over the economy. Inflation reached a 40-year high of nine per cent this year, and a Pew Research poll from October showed 80 per cent of voters listed it as a top concern. Democratic voters also listed health care and the climate as main issues.

All 435 House seats and 34 out of 100 Senate seats were up for election. After the 2020 vote, Democrats held 222 in the House seats and 50 in the Senate, with Vice-President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote.