Joe Biden and the Democrats avoided sweeping defeats but still risked losing control of Congress to the Republicans after US midterm elections showed Americans are unwilling to hand a strong political mandate to either party.
The outcome of the vote was a comfort to Biden but dealt a blow to the presidential ambitions of Donald Trump, who was counting on victories by Republican candidates he endorsed to power a new run for the White House in 2024.
Instead, the clearest victory for the former president’s party was clinched by Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, who is considered Trump’s most likely challenger for the Republican presidential nomination.
Control of the House of Representatives, which had been expected to decisively shift to the right on the back of voter dissatisfaction with inflation, crime and immigration, remained in limbo as Democrats successfully defended several battleground districts and even flipped some held by Republicans.
Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, said the party may have placed too much emphasis on opinion polls that suggested they would perform strongly. “This is not a tsunami . . . I think that Republicans got ahead of themselves,” he told the Financial Times.
Luntz called DeSantis “the real winner” of the midterms. “He has turned a successful governorship into a nationwide movement. I think he is going to give [Donald] Trump a run for his money.”
Analysts said that while Republicans had won over voters concerned about the economy and high inflation, Democrats had seized on anger at the recent Supreme Court ruling overturning the constitutional right to an abortion. Exit polls showed most Americans opposed the high court’s ruling on reproductive rights and had an unfavourable view of Trump.
In the Senate, Democrats scored a high-profile victory when John Fetterman defeated Republican Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. But it was unclear if they would retain control of the Senate with key races in Nevada and Arizona too close to call, and a potentially pivotal contest in Georgia heading to a run-off in December.
However, Republicans still managed to chip away at the political coalition that propelled Democrats to power in the House in 2018 and allowed them to win full control of Congress two years ago, including some gains among white women and Hispanic voters.
If Republicans do manage to wrest control of the House from the Democrats, it will be by a very small margin that could make it very difficult for their party leaders to strike compromises with the White House on key legislative priorities including funding the government, raising the debt limit to avoid a default, and continuing to provide military and economic aid to Ukraine.
“House minority leader Kevin McCarthy didn’t just want to win back the majority, he wanted to win enough races to have a ‘governing majority’. That’s looking like a shaky proposition right now,” Beacon Policy Advisors wrote in a note to clients on Wednesday.
Biden was due to speak at the White House about the results on Wednesday afternoon. He is preparing to head to the COP27 climate conference in Egypt and the G20 summit in Indonesia having avoided a damaging rebuke from US voters.