Some setbacks count almost as good news. Clearly, the Democrats have lost ground in the midterms. While it may be weeks before control of the Senate is determined, if Georgia goes to a runoff, the Republicans still appear likely to take the House, though more narrowly than hoped. They will use control to mire the administration in legislative deadlock and committee investigations. High-profile Democrats such as Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Beto O’Rourke in Texas were also easily defeated.
But this was “definitely not a Republican wave, that is for darn sure”, the senator Lindsey Graham acknowledged as early results came in on Tuesday night. The sense of the GOP falling short is not just about pre-poll punditry. Joe Biden may be on track for the best performance by an incumbent in the midterms since 2002, when George W Bush enjoyed extraordinary popularity in the wake of September 11. Mr Biden’s approval ratings are mediocre at best, thanks in large part to high inflation. Yet the president appears to have done markedly better than Barack Obama did in 2010 on similar figures.
It was also a bad night for Donald Trump, expected to declare his 2024 candidacy this week. There will be an increased Maga caucus in the House (giving Kevin McCarthy, currently minority leader, a headache). But while the former president’s support may be critical in primaries, it looks less helpful in general elections. True, JD Vance won his Senate race in Ohio; but the Democrat John Fetterman flipped Pennsylvania, defeating Mehmet Oz, and in Michigan, the governor Gretchen Whitmer saw off the challenge from Tudor Dixon. Two Republican victories were almost as unwelcome to Mr Trump: the re-election of Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, who defied his pressure to overturn the results in the state in 2020, and especially the landslide in Florida for Ron DeSantis, seen as the most likely challenger for the presidential nomination – as Mr Trump’s threats to the governor show.
In many ways the Democrats’ performance looked more like the result of a vote against Republican extremism than a vote of confidence in Mr Biden’s party. Inflation was the top issue for voters, but abortion came close behind – and outranked it in Pennsylvania. Despite GOP candidates’ last-minute attempts to blur their hardline anti-abortion stances, as they realised their unpopularity, voters turned out to defend women’s right to autonomy and healthcare. California, Michigan and Vermont supported ballot measures that effectively prevent state legislators enacting bans. In North Carolina (a key destination for people from anti-abortion states), Republicans did not get the supermajority they sought in the state house, which would have allowed them to enact a total or six-week abortion ban. Protecting democracy was another key concern for voters. An alarming number of election deniers won races; some will now oversee future votes. But many others were rejected.
Overall the results are a fillip for Democrat morale and, despite Mr Biden’s relatively low profile in this campaign, strengthen his position in his party (though according to one exit poll, only 30% of voters said they wanted him to run again in 2024; 67% said they didn’t). He will also retain precious authority in international dealings. All this is a relief. But after one of the most ferociously fought elections, with a staggering $16.7bn spent, the US’s challenges and divisions are as glaring as ever.