With the wind against them and under the weight of history, the Democrats achieve a difficult tie with the Republicans in a surprising mid-term election day.
Many Democrats entered Election Day thinking about how serious their losses might be and pondering how to explain them. By Wednesday, they had moved quickly to adopting an optimistic stance that they could retain a majority of votes in the Senate, celebrating victories in key races across multiple governorships and knowing that control of the House had yet to be declared.
Republicans had no choice but to grumble about the “quality of their candidates.” Several of them refused to concede defeats in contests that The Associated Press had declared in favor of their opponents.
It could be weeks before the final figures are known. There is still a chance that the Republicans will take unified control of Congress, immediately shrinking President Joe Biden’s ambitions for the next two years. The deep political divisions in the country were exposed to all.
The Democrats had much to celebrate in the morning. But while Republicans sighed with relief and lamented victories that didn’t materialize, there were bigger issues both parties needed to address — and soon.
On the Republican side, Donald Trump and his conspiracy-laden policies were again exposed as a problem, one that this time arguably prevented his party from scoring more victories in a national election. Instead of celebrating a red tsunami on Wednesday, Republicans were facing a new round of infighting over Trump’s role within the GOP and the red wave that never came.
“Every Republican in the country woke up this morning nauseated,” said Republican strategist David Urban, a former Trump adviser. “Live for Trump. Die for Trump.”
How far-fetched that assessment is will be known in the coming weeks, beginning with next Tuesday, the day Trump promised a “major” announcement. Most of the available evidence shows that he remains the most influential figure in his party.
Considering the political and economic environment, it should not be difficult for the Republicans to achieve important victories on Tuesday. Polls showed voters were extremely pessimistic about the state of the economy and the direction of the country. Biden’s approval ratings were anemic. And history gave clear indications that the party in the White House would be the target of voter discontent.
But the candidates who received Trump’s support failed in many of the key states.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats won Senate and gubernatorial races against a pair of Trump loyalists who sided with his lies about the 2020 election. Democrat John Fetterman managed to put concerns about his health and policies behind him. progressives to beat Mehmet Oz, a famous doctor whom Trump chose from among several candidates in the primaries. Doug Mastriano, a Trump supporter, was headed for a lopsided loss in the gubernatorial race.
Colorado Rep. Laruen Boebert, one of Trump’s main supporters in Congress, was still locked in a tight battle as the final votes were counted.
The situation was much the same in Georgia, where Trump’s pick for the Senate, former NFL star Herschel Walker, was virtually tied with Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock even after Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, whom Trump opposed, he easily won re-election.
“Clearly, we lost races we should have won because Trump picked the wrong candidates,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant. “Georgia had to be a sure thing.”
“The challenge for Trump,” he added, “is that with each defeat, the opposition to him grows stronger.”
Indeed, it was. As Trump-backed candidates floundered, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential challenger who did not have the former president’s support, scored a resounding victory.
But for Democrats, a not-so-bad election night is not the same as a very good one.
With several key races still to be decided, the GOP could still gain control of the House of Representatives for the next two years of Biden’s presidency. And with it, the Republican Party could block the passage of several important initiatives, while launching independent investigations, and even political trials.
And while Democrats avoided a political blowout, some of the places they lost exposed deep divisions in the racially diverse and working-class coalition that has led them hand in hand to victory for years. It could be weeks, or even months, before the magnitude of these divisions is known, but there is no doubt that they exist.
A clear example is Miami-Dade County, in South Florida, a predominantly Hispanic place that for years was a Democratic stronghold but that Republican DeSantis won en route to his re-election. Without Miami-Dade, Democrats have little chance of victory in a state that has never had a clear political preference in presidential elections.
“Thats the reality. There is a universe of Latinos and African-Americans who are voting Republican at the highest levels for different reasons,” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who lists Biden among his clients.
Democrats also lost voters in suburban New York and Virginia. In other districts, his candidates pulled off narrow victories in places that Biden had won easily. They lost Hispanic communities in South Texas. And they lost working-class regions in the Midwest, including in Ohio, where moderate Democrat Tim Ryan was unable to defeat Republican JD Vance, who had Trump’s support.
Overall, many Democrats struggled to find a clear and compelling message, moving from abortion to the economy to Social Security and back to abortion.
Even before polls closed, Third Way, a group led by moderate Democrats, issued an ominous warning about how damaged the party’s brand was.
“While it may be comforting to attribute any midterm election defeats solely to historical trends… there is a much deeper issue at play,” Third Way wrote in a memo. “Ultimately, there is no way for Democrats to build and sustain winning coalitions without repairing their damaged brand, even in an era when Republican candidates are increasingly extremist and fundamental women’s rights are up for a vote.”
Despite these concerns, history suggests that the Democrats should have had a much worse day.
Trump’s GOP lost 40 seats in the House during the 2018 midterm elections. Former President Barack Obama’s party lost 63 in 2010. Dating back to 1934, the White House party has lost an average of 28 seats in the lower house and four in the Senate.
“We can’t let the complainers and wimps win,” Anzalone said. “If you face historic obstacles and should have suffered significant losses, but you made these races incredibly close, then there are a lot of key races where the Democratic message is having an effect.”