Democrats celebrate surprise wins, but balance of power still in limbo

REUTERS/Tom Brenner
U.S. President Joe Biden smiles as he answers a question during a news conference held after the 2022 U.S. midterm elections in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 9, 2022.

Democrats continued to celebrate unexpected victories, notching several more wins in competitive House races on Wednesday, as control of the House and Senate remained uncertain. It could take weeks to find out which party ends up with more seats in the Senate.

Two critical Senate races in Arizona and Nevada remained too early to call Wednesday, and a third in Georgia is headed for a Dec. 6 runoff after neither Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock nor Republican Herschel Walker won more than 50 percent of the vote. To take control of the Senate, Republicans need to flip two of those three seats currently held by Democrats.

Republicans are likely to take control of the House, experts say, but by a much smaller margin than they expected, falling short of the red wave they envisioned. Of the 64 seats considered competitive, Democrats have won more than 20 of them, but Republicans only need to net five seats to win the majority. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R -Calif.) has already started to make calls asking for support in his bid to be the next speaker.

But Democrats outperformed expectations in races across the country, lifted by anger over the Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, weak Republican candidates and an aggressive on-the-ground push to turn out voters. Those factors helped overcome President Joe Biden’s low approval rating, current high inflation rates and the historic precedent that the president’s party is often trounced in midterms.

“Here’s what we do know: While the press and the pundits are predicting a giant red wave, it didn’t happen,” Biden said in a news conference Wednesday afternoon. Voters “sent a clear, unmistakable message that they want to preserve our democracy and protect the right to choose in this country.”

Democrats also won control of the state Houses in Michigan and New Hampshire, and were close to doing so in Pennsylvania as well. Republicans also had some big wins called Wednesday, including the ouster of Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee whose job it was to retain Democrats’ power in the House. In Wisconsin, Sen. Ron Johnson (R) prevailed in a hard-fought campaign against Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D).

“Clearly, House Democrats have exceeded expectations,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “With many races continuing to be too close to call, every vote must be counted as cast to determine the final results. As we proceed, we continue to be grateful to Sean Patrick Maloney for the successful operation he led that brought us to this point.”

Republicans seemed to gain momentum in the closing weeks of the midterms as they attacked Democrats on inflation, immigration and crime. National exit polls show that more than 50 percent of voters cited one of those three issues as most important in their vote. Abortion rights was the top issue for 27 percent of voters, proving the saliency of that issue months after the high court’s decision. The midterms were also rocked in the last few weeks by a violent assault on Pelosi’s husband, Paul, at their San Francisco home that brought back into focus the dangerous rhetoric used by some on the far right.

At the same time, former president Donald Trump, speaking Monday at a rally in Ohio for GOP Senate candidate J.D. Vance, more clearly indicated his intentions to run for president in 2024, which may have resulted in motivating Democrats and some independents.

“Trump’s self-promoting entrance at the end of the campaign hurt,” said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist. “It’s just a signal to a lot of swing voters that he’s back – and he’s coming back within a week after the election.”

“He just kind of injected himself in these states for his own politics and I think it hurt a lot of the Republicans,” he added, referring to candidates that Trump endorsed in several races, some of whom did not fare well on Tuesday.

As Election Day began, Republican candidates, pundits, and social media influencers were giddy with anticipation of a red wave of voters that would sweep candidates around the country into office and usher in Republican majorities in the House and Senate. By election night, their tone had changed, as it became clear the wave had not arrived, according to a Washington Post analysis of social media posts, blog posts, and podcasts, which revealed a change in sentiment among GOP influencers and candidates as the narrative surrounding the 2020 election shifted in real time.

Rep. Mayra Flores (R), who had won a special election in the southern Texas district in June, lamented her loss to Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, tweeting: “The RED WAVE did not happen. Republicans and Independents stayed home. DO NOT COMPLAIN ABOUT THE RESULTS IF YOU DID NOT DO YOUR PART!”

“All the rules are thrown out,” said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster who started the election cycle believing it would be the worst political cycle he’d ever seen for Democrats. “We really no longer know who is coming out.”

Whether Democrats can retain their slim majority in the Senate depends on hundreds of thousands of ballots still uncounted in the races between Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican Adam Laxalt in Nevada; and between Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly and Republican Blake Masters in Arizona.

In Nevada, Joe Gloria, Clark County Registrar of Voters, said his office is still receiving mail-in ballots and ballots collected from more than 300 drop boxes across Nevada’s most-populous county.

Clark County can receive mail ballots postmarked on or before Nov. 8 until Saturday, and voters whose signatures on file don’t match those ballots have until Monday to have them cured. The county is still counting provisional ballots and drop box ballots. Gloria promised the “final unofficial” results by next Thursday.

In Arizona, election officials said more than 400,000 ballots still needed to be counted in the state’s most populous county. Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer said Wednesday the county received 275,000 early ballots on Tuesday, and it will be reviewing and verifying signatures on them “today, tomorrow and the next day.”

The Democrats’ biggest prize of the night was in Pennsylvania, where Lt. Gov. John Fetterman flipped a Republican-held seat, a critical race for them to have a chance to keep the Senate. Fetterman made a concentrated push to win voters in conservative areas that Democrats typically ignore, a strategy that seems to have worked; Fetterman exceeded Biden’s support in many red counties.

“I never expected we’d turn these red counties blue, but we did what we needed to do and had those conversations all over the counties,” Fetterman told supporters.

Fetterman’s Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz, whose candidacy was championed by Trump, struggled to surmount the characterization of him as an unrelatable, out-of-town celebrity with no strong ties to Pennsylvania.

In Georgia, Warnock finds himself in a familiar political position, as he prepares for a Dec. 6 runoff. The senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta won his seat in a special election runoff in January 2021.

As of Wednesday afternoon, he was leading with 49.4 percent of the vote over his GOP challenger, Walker, who had 48.5 percent. Walker, a football legend in Georgia who was recruited to run for the Senate by Trump, drew scrutiny for allegations of domestic violence and that he paid for two former girlfriends to have abortions. But he drew heavy support from evangelicals for his vow to support a national ban on abortions, and national Republicans rallied to his defense in an effort to take back control of the Senate.

Other Trump-favored candidates floundered, including Republican Doug Mastriano, who ran for governor in Pennsylvania on a platform of denying the 2020 election results and espousing Christian nationalism. Democrat Josh Shapiro won in a resounding rejection of the far right and its conspiracies about the 2020 presidential election. Nearly every GOP gubernatorial candidate who refused to say whether they would have certified Biden’s win lost in competitive races.

“We won firewall states,” Gov. Roy Cooper (D-N.C.), the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said in an interview with The Post, noting that Democrats have control of executive power in the battleground presidential states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. “It’s critical when you have election denying Republicans who will try to change voting laws, and may even try to change the way presidential electors are selected. Now we have Democratic governors in place who won’t stand for that.”

In many places, high voter turnout, including among young voters, helped propel Democrats to victory. In Wisconsin, there was massive turnout in Dane County, which includes Madison, and 70 percent of voters under the age of 30 backed the reelection bid of Gov. Tony Evers – a 10-point swing toward Democrats since his 2018 win. Overall, younger voters supported Democratic congressional candidates at somewhat lower levels than in 2018, but they helped boost Democratic Senate candidates in several key contests. Network exit polls found that among voters under 30, Fetterman won 70 percent support in Pennsylvania, Warnock won 63 percent in Georgia, and Kelly won 76 percent in Arizona.

White House chief of staff Ron Klain tweeted Wednesday morning, “Never underestimate how much Team Biden is underestimated,” sounding vindicated after months of predictions that Biden would be a drag on Democrats.

Top Democratic candidates distanced themselves from the White House for most of the campaign. Biden did not campaign in many of the key states during the final stretch, aside from his ancestral Pennsylvania, where he appeared in Democratic-friendly Philadelphia with former president Barack Obama days before the election.

Democrats also appeared largely vindicated in their controversial strategy of meddling in GOP primaries to elevate far-right candidates they believed would be easier to defeat in the general election.

Of the six races where the Democratic strategy in the primary worked, the Democrats won all of them. In two others, Democratic candidates are leading their GOP challengers, including in a Michigan House race that Democrats hope to flip.

Democratic victories also include the three gubernatorial races where the Democrats successfully meddled in the GOP elections: Shapiro in Pennsylvania, Wes Moore in Maryland and J.B. Pritzker in Illinois.

In New Hampshire, Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan beat back a challenge from Republican Don Bolduc, who raised doubts that Biden won the election and benefited from more than $3 million spent by Democrats boosting him in his primary. In New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District, incumbent Democratic Rep. Annie Kuster also won against a far-right challenger.

Democrats also prevailed in Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, flipping a House seat from red to blue, where they also elevated a far-right candidate. In that race, Democrats boosted John Gibbs, who narrowly defeated Rep. Peter Meijer in the Republican primary. That set up a contest in which Democratic candidate Hillary Scholten was able to beat Gibbs.