The mood was confident early on Tuesday evening at a Washington DC election party thrown by Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives.
The US midterm elections were supposed to deliver a thumping Republican victory that would easily flip control of the House. For McCarthy, this would allow him to realise his longstanding dream of seizing the gavel as speaker.
But as the night wore on, optimism turned to jitters for some attendees. The Republicans claimed a number of big victories, particularly in Florida where Governor Ron DeSantis stormed to re-election. But they faltered elsewhere, notably in Pennsylvania, where Democrat John Fetterman, who suffered a stroke during the campaign, still managed to prevail in the Senate race over Mehmet Oz, a television doctor with the seal of Donald Trump’s approval.
While the Republicans are still expected to claim the House, it will not come with the ease or comfortable margin McCarthy had expected. By 11pm, with no sign of their host, some staffers left the jamboree for campaign headquarters to try to get a better sense of what was unfolding on the ground.
Others consoled each other late into the evening. “Why are you upset?” one staff member asked another. “We still won.”
In the end, McCarthy turned up at 2am to give a brief and muted victory speech. “When you wake up tomorrow we will be in the majority and Nancy Pelosi will be in the minority,” he said.
And so it went on the culminating night of America’s midterm elections — another contest that was meant to deliver a decisive verdict on the presidency of Joe Biden, the prospects for a Trump comeback, and the political direction of the US writ large. Instead, it seemed to confirm, yet again, the country’s entrenched divisions.
For Democrats, most of whom still expect to lose control of the House, a loss has rarely brought forth such euphoria. Many party operatives and consultants were so downbeat heading into the night that they skipped the usual round of Washington parties — convinced their side was heading for a conclusive thrashing.
As the night wore on, they willed themselves to open their eyes and discovered their worst fears had not come true. In many cases, they were pleasantly surprised.
One such source of relief was the New York governor’s race, where Kathy Hochul, the Democratic incumbent, had made a cautious, uninspired pitch. In the dying days of the campaign, the impossible was beginning to appear plausible: an upset victory for the pro-life, Trump-supporting Lee Zeldin.
But shortly after 11pm, Hochul declared victory. When she did so, a visceral roar erupted at an Italianate former bank building in Manhattan where the Democrats were gathered. It felt like a cry of relief as much as a cheer of celebration.
Jerrold Nadler, the liberal lion of the state’s Congressional delegation, called Hochul’s victory “a heck of a rebuke to the demagogy of Zeldin and the Republicans”.
In fact, Hochul’s margin of victory may yet be single digits, the slimmest for Democrats in nearly two decades. It was also possible that Sean Patrick Maloney, the New York Democrat entrusted to run the party’s Congressional campaign, would suffer the ignominy of losing his seat.
One New Yorker who helped Hochul across the line was Caitlin Connolly, 36, a Seattle-born attorney who has lived in New York City for a decade.
Connolly expressed concern about fraying public safety in New York City, with crime rising sharply during the coronavirus pandemic and then remaining at elevated levels. She would have been open to a pro-choice Republican, she said. Ultimately, though, Zeldin was simply too extreme.
“Abortion is the number one issue, and I don’t want Zeldin to win,” said Connolly, who cast her ballot at a school in Manhattan about an hour before polls closed.
Elsewhere, there were crumbs of comfort for both parties. Democrat Maggie Hassan held on to her New Hampshire Senate seat, denying Republicans one of their main pick-up opportunities. Trump-backed candidate JD Vance won a Senate seat in Ohio, as did Ted Budd in North Carolina.
But by the early hours of Wednesday morning it became clear the races that will decide which party controls the Senate — including Georgia, Nevada and Arizona — were too close to call.
At an election party in Atlanta, Georgia, Raphael Warnock, a Democrat defending his Senate seat, told supporters he was “feeling good” about his chances of returning to Congress. “We always knew this race would be close,” Warnock said just before midnight. “Y’all hang in there.”
Despite the senator’s confidence, the mood had become tense at Warnock’s election night party and the crowd thinned out after the state’s race for governor was called for incumbent Republican Brian Kemp.
The party’s DJ worked hard to return the event to its previous jovial atmosphere. “Let’s get this energy back on,” he told the crowd gathered at the Marriott Marquis hotel. He played the popular line dance song “Cupid Shuffle” for a second time, but few danced.
As the dust settles, voters may not yet know which side has prevailed in the Senate. There may also be fresh cries of voter fraud from Republicans.
But in a sure sign of disappointment, some of the guests at McCarthy’s party were beginning to cast blame. Professional operatives complained that the results were an indictment of Trump, given how badly some of his favoured candidates had performed.
“What we’re seeing tonight is that Republicans want a genuine conservative but without the pushback that Trump gets from voters,” said one. “Ron DeSantis might just give us that.”