Angry electorate delivers split decision, shattering GOP hopes of a wave

An electorate that sees both its major political parties as too extreme, seethes at the direction of the country and harbors fears of what the future holds delivered a sharply divided verdict in midterm elections on Tuesday that is likely to drag Washington to a screeching halt for at least the next two years.
President Biden calls to congratulate winners on Election Night, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. Photo credit: The White House.

An electorate that sees both its major political parties as too extreme, seethes at the direction of the country and harbors fears of what the future holds delivered a sharply divided verdict in midterm elections on Tuesday that are likely to drag Washington to a screeching halt for at least the next two years.

Though dozens of races remain to be counted Wednesday morning, Republicans appear likely to win a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, by the narrowest of margins. But there are enough outstanding ballots to be counted that even that outcome remains in question.

Democrats were on the brink of maintaining control of the U.S. Senate, after the party picked up a critical seat in Pennsylvania and its incumbents ran strong in Arizona and New Hampshire. Races are too close to call in Nevada and Georgia, and the battle for control could come down again to a Peach State runoff, in December.

Voters largely re-elected their own governors. Republican incumbents in Georgia, Florida, Texas and Oklahoma cruised to new terms, as did Democratic incumbents in Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York and Wisconsin. 

Democrats picked up two Republican-held seats in deep blue Maryland and Massachusetts, while early tallies showed Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) trailing in his bid for a new term.

The results represent a stinging disappointment for Republicans, who had seen evidence in recent weeks of a red wave building behind them amid a weakening economy, high gas prices and inflation, and a president whose approval ratings have been negative for more than a year.

Some top Republicans laid blame for the disappointing results at the feet of former President Donald Trump, who hand-picked candidates in races across the country and then spent little to promote them in November’s general election. Several of those Trump-backed candidates — running for Senate seats in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, or for governor in Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Michigan and Maine — lost races that GOP strategists had high hopes of winning just weeks ago.

“We are going to leave seats on the table,” lamented one national Republican strategist, who asked for anonymity to offer a candid assessment.

Democrats, many of whom feared the same Republican tide and had begun the traditional post-election blame-casting even before the polls had closed, were elated at the outcome. This year’s elections may be the happiest any party has ever been about losing control of the U.S. House.

For Biden, keeping control of the U.S. Senate represents perhaps the best outcome the White House could have hoped for — albeit one that will still upend his presidency as Republicans reclaim control of one half of the legislative branch. 

“Just got off the phone with some of tonight’s winners — including some folks I saw on the road this year,” Biden tweeted late Tuesday, a seeming reminder that he remains the leader of his party.

An objective reading of exit polls conducted as voters left their precincts suggests both parties have work to do to repair their images with the American people. Majorities said they viewed both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party unfavorably, and that they viewed both Republicans and Democrats as too extreme. 

More voters say they disapprove of Biden’s job performance, 55%, than approve, 44%, and 56% said they viewed Biden unfavorably — a staggeringly high figure, topped only by the share who see Trump unfavorably, 58%. About one in six voters said they do not see either Biden or Trump in a favorable light.

Though pre-election surveys showed most voters cared deeply about a stagnating economy and rising inflation, the exit polls appeared to show more voters gave weight to the future of abortion rights in the wake of a Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade.

Voters who called inflation the top issue, 31%, backed Republicans by a 43-point margin, those exit polls showed. Voters who said abortion was their most pressing concern, 27%, backed Democrats by an even wider 53-point margin. Sixty percent of voters said the Supreme Court’s decision striking down half a century of abortion rights left them dissatisfied or angry.

In states where abortion rights were on the ballot, supporters scored a series of decisive wins, from Michigan to Vermont and California. Even in deep-red Kentucky, a measure to amend the state constitution to explicitly exclude the right to an abortion appeared headed to defeat.

At the same time, after years in which Trump and his allies have undercut faith in democratic institutions and the security of American elections, two-thirds of voters said American democracy is somewhat or very threatened. A third of voters said they are angry about the way things are going in the United States, while 41% said they were dissatisfied.

The electorate’s dismal mood, coupled with an inflation spike that voters under the age of 50 have never before experienced and an economy that teeters on the brink of a recession, all suggested Democrats were heading for an historic drubbing.

But the number of seats Democrats will lose in the U.S. House is likely to be the best performance by a president in his first midterm election since 2002, when Republicans gained seats under President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Though election results are still days, or even weeks, away from being finalized, even Democrats expected Republicans to grab a narrow majority. But the margin is likely to be so small that it will pose a problem for the likely speaker-in-waiting, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), whose grip on the office he has long sought will now be subject to the whims of the most conservative members of his own conference.