By Nathan Layne and Tim Reid
ALPHARETTA, Ga./PHOENIX, Ariz. (Reuters) -Republicans made modest gains in U.S. midterm elections but Democrats performed better than expected, as control of the Senate hinged on three races that remained too close to call on Wednesday afternoon.
The Georgia U.S. Senate race between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker will go to a Dec. 6 runoff, Edison Research projected. That means it could be weeks until control of that chamber is known, unless Democrats hold off challengers in Nevada and Arizona.
Republicans picked up at least seven seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, Edison Research projected. That would be two more than needed to wrest control of the chamber from Democrats, though with 45 races still uncalled, the Republican margin could go up or down.
Even a slim majority in the House would let Republicans hem in Democratic President Joe Biden during his next two years in office, blocking legislation and launching potentially politically damaging investigations.
But they appeared to be far short of the sweeping "red wave" victory they had sought, as Democrats were avoiding the kind of heavy midterm defeat that often plagues sitting presidents of either party.
The results appeared to show voters punishing Biden for presiding over an economy hit by steep inflation, while also lashing out against Republican efforts to ban abortion and cast doubt on the nation's vote-counting process.
Poor performances by some candidates backed by Donald Trump -- including Walker -- indicated exhaustion with the kind of chaos fomented by the former Republican president, raising questions about the viability of his possible run for the White House in 2024.
"I think his ego is just too big to handle," said Yvonne Langdon, 75, as she cast her ballot for Republican candidates in Michigan on Tuesday.
Biden had framed Tuesday's election as a test of U.S. democracy at a time when hundreds of Republican candidates embraced Trump's false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.
A number of election deniers who backed Trump's claims were elected to office on Tuesday, but many of those who sought positions to oversee elections at the state level were defeated.
Fears of violence or disruption by far-right poll watchers at voting stations did not materialize.
DEMOCRATS WIN PENNSYLVANIA
Control of the Senate would give Republicans the power to block Biden's nominees for judicial and administrative posts. But in a critical win for Democrats, John Fetterman flipped a Republican-held U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, beating retired celebrity surgeon Mehmet Oz and bolstering his party's chances of holding the chamber.
The White House seized on the lighter-than-expected losses. "Never underestimate how much Team Biden is underestimated," White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said on Twitter.
Democrats also had their share of embarrassments, as New York Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, the chairman of the committee charged with reelecting House Democrats, conceded he had lost his own race.
If the Republicans do take control of Congress, they plan to seek cost savings in the Social Security and Medicare safety-net programs and make permanent tax cuts enacted in 2017 that are due to expire.
Republicans also could engineer a showdown over the debt ceiling to extract major spending cuts, and could pare back aid to Ukraine.
Only 26 of the 53 most competitive races, based on a Reuters analysis of the leading nonpartisan forecasters, had been decided as of Wednesday morning, raising the prospect that the final outcome may not be known for some time. Democrats won 20 of those 26 contests.
The party that occupies the White House almost always loses seats in elections midway through a president's first four-year term, and Biden has struggled with low public approval.
"In this climate we should have done better," said Rob Jesmer, a former head of the Republicans' Senate campaign arm.
U.S. stock indexes fell on Wednesday as the uncertainty weighed on traders' mood.
MIXED DAY FOR TRUMP
Trump, who took an active role in recruiting Republican candidates, had mixed results.
He notched a victory in Ohio, where "Hillbilly Elegy" author J.D. Vance won a Senate seat to keep it in Republican hands. But Oz lost his Pennsylvania Senate race and Doug Mastriano, another Trump ally, was handily defeated in the state's governor's race.
"While in certain ways yesterday's election was somewhat disappointing, from my personal standpoint it was a very big victory," he said on Truth Social, his online platform.
Meanwhile Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who could challenge Trump in 2024, won re-election by nearly 20 percentage points, Edison projected.
Thirty-five Senate seats, all 435 House seats and three dozen governors' races were on the ballot.
(Live election results from around the country are here.)
The primary issue weighing on Democrats was stubbornly high annual inflation, which at 8.2% stands at the highest rate in 40 years.
Voters in California, Michigan and Vermont approved referendums enshrining abortion rights in their state constitutions. Deeply conservative Kentucky looked poised to reject a constitutional amendment that would have declared there was no right to abortion.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax, Jason Lange, Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey, Moira Warburton, Gram Slattery, Makini Brice and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington, Gabriella Borter in Birmingham, Michigan, Nathan Layne in Alpharetta, Georgia, Masha Tsvetkova in New York, Tim Reid in Phoenix and Ned Parker in Reno, Nevada, and Lucy Raitano and Amanda Cooper in London; Writing by Andy Sullivan and Richard Cowan; Editing by Ross Colvin, Scott Malone, Alistair Bell and Daniel Wallis)