Republicans have won back control of the House of Representatives scraping a victory from a midterms election that many had expected to be a red wave of wins but which instead turned into more of a trickle.

Nevertheless, the party finally won its crucial 218th seat in the lower chamber of Congress, wresting away control from the Democrats and setting the stage for a showdown with Joe Biden in the next two years of his presidency.

The result means the end of Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s venerable time as House speaker and is likely to pass the speaker’s gavel to Republican leader Kevin McCarthy who has announced his intention to take up the post.

Control of the House is crucial as it will allow the Republicans to launch an array of congressional investigations ranging from Biden’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan to more obviously politicized probes of government actions during the coronavirus pandemic and Biden’s son Hunter’s business activities.

The Republican-run House is likely to be a raucous affair as its predicted slim majority means that it will only take a few rebels to stymie any legislation – effectively handing great power to almost every member. With the Republican right full of fringe figures, like Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, that could be a recipe for chaos and the promotion of extremist beliefs and measures.

Biden and his party had gone into election day largely expecting to get a thumping from an electorate angry at high inflation that has wrought misery for millions of Americans struggling with bills and spiraling prices. Republicans had doubled down on that by running campaigns that stoked fears of violent crime and portrayed Democrats as far-left politicians out of touch with voters’ concerns.

But the Democrats fought back, pointing out the extremist nature of many Republican politicians, especially a cadre of far-right figures backed by Donald Trump, and warning of the threat to US democracy that they represented. They were also boosted by the ongoing backlash from the loss of federal abortion rights, taken away by a conservative-dominated supreme court.

The result was a shock: Democrats held up in vast swathes of the country and while in some parts – such as Florida – Republicans won, in many other parts their candidates were defeated. High-profile Trump-backed candidates like Mehmet Oz and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania lost their races.

Meanwhile, Republican performance in the Senate was worse. Democrats retained control of the upper chamber when their incumbent senator was projected as the winner in Nevada the Saturday after election night. The remaining seat up for grabs, in Georgia, will be decided in a run-off between incumbent Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger Herschel Walker in early December after neither surpassed 50% of the vote.

If Warnock wins, Democrats will enjoy a one-seat majority, 51-50, in the 100-seat senate, a small but significant improvement on the current 50-50 balance that will continue should Walker win, with Kamala Harris continuing as the tie-breaker for the Democrats in the vice-president’s traditional role as president of the senate.

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