As a long Tuesday night bled into a bleary Wednesday morning, it was still not clear whether Democrats or Republicans had won control of Congress in the pivotal 2022 midterms.
Yet amid all the electoral confusion, one thing was already abundantly obvious: It was not the night Republicans had been hoping for.
Buoyed by widespread voter dismay over record inflation and doubts about President Biden’s ability to turn things around, many Republicans had waltzed into Election Day expecting a red wave. A sweeping new majority in the U.S. House. Clear command of the U.S. Senate. And hard-right figures in position to rewrite the 2024 election rules in key swing states such as Arizona.
By the time the day ended, however, the red wave that pundits and politicos had predicted was looking (at most) like a red ripple.
“This should teach us a lesson — that voters always have the last word,” David Plouffe, President Barack Obama's former campaign manager, said on MSNBC. “It’s a shocking development.”
It’s still possible — even likely — that once the dust settles, the GOP will narrowly recapture the House of Representatives for the first time since 2017. But “narrowly” is the key word here.
Typically, the party that doesn’t occupy the Oval Office tends to gain ground in the midterms because its supporters are highly motivated to vote against the president — and the president’s supporters aren’t particularly motivated to vote for more of the same. It usually takes extraordinary circumstances, such as the 9/11 attacks or the Cuban missile crisis, to make a president and his party popular enough to avoid a midterm drubbing.
Factor in the highest inflation in 40 years, skyrocketing interest rates, concerns about a coming recession, a pandemic-era uptick in violent crime and President Biden’s anemic approval rating — the worst of any modern president at this stage of his first term — and the writing seemed to be on the wall for Democrats.
But they seem to have avoided the worst. In each of the last four midterm elections, the president’s party has lost an average of about 37 House seats. In 2010 (Obama’s first midterm), Democrats lost 64 seats; in 2018 (Donald Trump’s first midterm), Republicans lost 42 seats.
Currently, Biden’s Democrats are projected to lose only about 10 seats, give or take. It’s still possible that they will lose fewer than 5 — and manage, somehow, to hang on to the House. If that happens, it will be due to Democrats such as Abigail Spanberger (a Blue Dog moderate who fought off Republican Yesli Vega in Virginia’s Seventh District) and perhaps even Adam Frisch (a former Aspen city councilman who was leading the hardcore Trump Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert in Colorado’s Third District late Tuesday night).
At the same time, control of the Senate — where Democrats are defending the narrowest of majorities — remains up in the air, pending the final results in several races that are too close to call.
But even here, the GOP's grandest ambitions failed to materialize Tuesday. In New Hampshire and Colorado, the Democratic incumbents Maggie Hassan and Michael Bennet easily fended off what were supposed to be spirited Republican challenges. In Pennsylvania, Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman defeated his Republican rival Dr. Mehmet Oz, flipping a former GOP seat.
Depending on what happens out West — where Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly of Arizona and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada were locked in tight battles with venture capitalist Blake Masters and former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, respectively — Senate control could come down to the results of a likely Dec. 6 runoff between Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker in Georgia. The last time Warnock ran in a runoff, he won.
It’s important to emphasize that the final 2022 results — which may not be final for days, or even weeks in some places — will define the next phase of U.S. politics. Even a narrow House majority will mean that Republicans can block Biden’s domestic agenda and pursue their own political goals through hearings and subpoenas. If they win, the result is likely to be yet another era of gridlock, brinkmanship and partisan investigations on Capitol Hill.
Likewise, some of the GOP’s most high-profile election deniers — including Mark Finchem, who was running for secretary of state in Arizona, and Pennsylvania gubernatorial hopeful Doug Mastriano — appeared to have lost by wide margins or fallen far behind in the early count Tuesday night. But others remain very much in the hunt — including Kari Lake, the former Phoenix newscaster turned GOP gubernatorial nominee in Arizona, who has been described as “Trumpism’s leading lady.” If elected, Lake and others who share her views would have the power to help the 2024 Republican presidential nominee win their respective states, regardless of the actual results.
Yet while the United States waits for every last race to be called, the main question will be why the GOP underperformed Tuesday. Was it candidate quality? Was it the end of Roe v. Wade energizing Democratic voters? Was it Trump’s continuing presence at the center of American politics as he teases a presidential campaign announcement that could come as soon as next week?
And if Republicans do start to blame Trump, does that mean they will gravitate instead toward Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who won reelection resoundingly in the redder-than-ever Sunshine State — as their new standard bearer for 2024?
It could take a long time to answer such questions — longer, even, than it takes to count all of Tuesday’s votes.