President Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats always knew that any chance they had of avoiding a rout in the US midterm elections would come from portraying Republicans as too radical to govern.
That strategy bore fruit on Tuesday, as Democrats performed far better than expected in a number of toss-up races in the House of Representatives, stretching from Rhode Island to Texas, denying Republicans the quick and large majority in the lower chamber predicted by the opinion polls.
Meanwhile, Democrats’ hopes of maintaining control of the Senate were boosted after John Fetterman, the lieutenant-governor of Pennsylvania, narrowly defeated Donald Trump-backed celebrity physician Mehmet Oz. Pennsylvania is politically pivotal and symbolically important for Biden because he was born and raised in the state.
The overall result was that the Democrats managed to eke out something close to a draw out of contests that appeared destined to inflict bruising losses on them similar to those suffered by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton during their first midterm elections in 2010 and 1994.
“Democrats have defied history tonight,” said Ben LaBolt, a Democratic strategist and former senior adviser to Obama. “The story of Joe Biden’s political career is that people always count him out and he always defies expectation and these midterms are another example of that,” LaBolt said.
Exit polls produced for US television networks identified inflation as the top concern for voters. Biden has struggled to contain rising prices, with inflation running at 40-year highs for most of the year. The issue has helped Republicans, and exit polls showed it was especially important to them.
But abortion came a close second, after conservative Supreme Court justices in June struck down the constitutional right to an abortion. This suggests the issue played a role in limiting the electoral damage for the Democrats, energising their base and winning over swing and first-time voters. The gender gap in the Pennsylvania race was telling: 57 per cent of women voted for Fetterman, while just 43 per cent voted for Oz.
More broadly, Biden and the Democrats were successful enough in branding Republicans as “Maga extremists” — a reference to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan — to show that they were excessively beholden to the unpopular and twice-impeached former president and his policies.
Although Republicans appeared to have momentum heading into election day as voters focused on their economic concerns, Trump’s re-emergence on the campaign trail alongside prominent candidates, and his own strong hints in the final stretch of another run for the presidency in 2024, will have helped their argument.
“Making the case against Maga Republicans seems kinda effective,” Neera Tanden, a senior adviser to Biden in the White House, wrote on Twitter as the results rolled in.
The outcome of the election will probably spare Democrats and the White House the typical round of recrimination and self-examination that would usually follow heavy midterm defeats.
It might even leave Biden emboldened to press ahead with his intention to campaign for a second term in the White House, which he had left in limbo until after the midterms.
“This election does not feel like the blowout that many anticipated,” said David Gergen, a former adviser to US presidents from both parties now at Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership. “Biden might well emerge feeling better and say ‘I’m hanging in there’.”
If Republicans do win both the House and the Senate — which remained unclear on Wednesday morning with key races not yet called — it would still stymie any remaining Democratic legislative ambitions and potentially lead to destabilising clashes that could unsettle markets and the economy.
The handy re-election of popular Republican governors including Ron DeSantis in Florida, Brian Kemp in Georgia, Greg Abbott in Texas and Mike DeWine in Ohio will also be a reminder to Democrats that the Republican brand has only been partially tarnished by Trump. Many of them are seen as viable, even preferable, alternatives in more conservative-leaning states.
Big gains for Republicans in South Florida, including among Hispanics in an area that was formerly a Democratic stronghold, will be of particular concern for Biden and his party.
But fears that Republicans would make big leaps among non-college-educated minorities, including black and Latino voters, did not pan out as feared for Democrats, triggering, if anything laments from the GOP side.
Mayra Flores, the Republican House member who won her Texas seat in a special election in June only to lose it on Tuesday, said in a tweet: “The RED WAVE did not happen. Republicans and Independents stayed home. DO NOT COMPLAIN ABOUT THE RESULTS IF YOU DID NOT DO YOUR PART!”
Democrats will have their own successes among incumbents to point to at a state level, including the re-election of governors Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Gavin Newsom in California.
Harvard University’s Gergen said one of the most important results of the night was that even in a tense and highly polarised political environment — this was the first national election since 2020 and the January 6 attack on the Capitol — the voting process itself ran smoothly.
“It wasn’t an evening that seemed to threaten our democracy”, he said.