Analysis: Stunning draw as Democrats hold own against Republicans in US midterms

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Facing tremendous headwinds and weighty history, Democrats fought Republicans to a stunning midterm draw in the US.

Many Democrats went into election night dreading how bad their losses could be and pondering how to explain them.

By Wednesday, they had quickly shifted into hoping that they could actually maintain a voting majority in the Senate, celebrating victories in key governors’ races, and aware that control of the House of Representatives was still not declared.

Republicans were left grumbling about “candidate quality”.

President Joe Biden speaking at a campaign event
President Joe Biden speaking at a campaign event (Susan Walsh/AP)

The final numbers might not be known for weeks. There is still a chance Republicans could take unified control of Congress, and President Joe Biden’s ambitions for the next two years would instantly shrink. The nation’s fractious political divides remained on vivid display.

Democrats had plenty to savour in the morning light. But as they exhaled and Republicans lamented big gains that did not materialise, there were larger problems that both political parties will need to address – and soon.

For the Republicans, Donald Trump and his conspiracy-laden politics were exposed anew as a problem, one that this time probably blocked his party from achieving much bigger gains in a nationwide election. Instead of celebrating a red tsunami on Wednesday, Republicans faced a new round of infighting over Mr Trump’s role in the party and the red wave that was not.

“Every Republican in America this morning is waking up sick to their stomach,” said Republican strategist David Urban, a former Trump adviser.

“Live by Trump, die by Trump.”

Whether that assessment is overheated will play out in the coming weeks, starting next Tuesday when Mr Trump has promised a “major” announcement. Most available evidence shows he is still the most powerful figure in his party.

Given the political and economic climate, it should not have been difficult for Republicans to make major gains on Tuesday. Polling showed voters were deeply pessimistic about the state of the economy and the direction of the nation. President Biden’s approval ratings were anaemic. And history strongly suggested that any party holding the White House would bear the brunt of voter discontent.

Donald Trump
Former president Donald Trump (Andrew Harnik/AP)

In battleground Pennsylvania, Democrats won contests for the Senate and governor against a pair of Trump loyalists who embraced his lies about the 2020 election. Democrat John Fetterman pushed past concerns about his health and his progressive policies to defeat Mehmet Oz, the celebrity TV doctor Mr Trump picked from a crowded Republican primary field this spring. Trump defender Doug Mastriano was heading towards a double-digit defeat in the governor’s race.

Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert, one of Mr Trump’s loudest cheerleaders in Congress, was locked in a close race with the final votes being counted.

It was much the same in Georgia, where Mr Trump’s hand-picked Senate nominee, former football star Herschel Walker, was running essentially tied with Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock even as the state’s Republican governor Brian Kemp, whom Mr Trump opposed, cruised to re-election.

“Clearly, we lost races we should have won because Trump picked flawed candidates,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant. “Georgia should have been a slam dunk.”

“Trump’s challenge,” Conant added, “is that with every loss, his opposition grows stronger.”

Indeed, as Trump-backed candidates flailed, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential rival who Mr Trump did not endorse, scored a resounding victory.

Incumbent Florida Republican governor Ron DeSantis, his wife Casey and their children on stage, after speaking to supporters at an election night party after winning his race for re-election in Tampa, Florida
Incumbent Florida Republican governor Ron DeSantis, his wife Casey and their children at an election night party after winning his race for re-election in Tampa (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

With several key races still too early to call, the Republican Party may still win control of the House of Representatives for the next two years of Mr Biden’s presidency. And with that, the Republicans could block the passage of any meaningful legislation while launching independent investigations – even impeachment proceedings – with impunity.

And while the Democrats avoided a political wipeout, some of the places they lost exposed deepening cracks in the racially diverse working-class coalition that has fuelled their victories for years. It may be weeks or months before the exact extent of those cracks is known, but there is little doubt they are there.

Look no further than south Florida’s Miami-Dade County, an overwhelmingly Hispanic former Democratic stronghold that governor Mr DeSantis, a Republican, won as he cruised to re-election. Without Miami-Dade, Democrats have little path to future victories in a state that has been a perennial presidential battleground.

“It’s just a reality. There’s a universe of Latinos and African Americans who are voting Republican at a higher level for lots of reasons,” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone, whose clients include Mr Biden.

Democrats also lost suburban voters across New York and Virginia. In other districts, their candidates eked out victories in districts Mr Biden had carried easily. They lost Hispanic communities across south Texas. And they lost in working-class regions across the Midwest, including Ohio, where moderate Democrat Tim Ryan failed to defeat Trump-backed Republican JD Vance.

Overall, Democrats struggled to find a clear, compelling message, jumping from abortion to the economy to social security and back to abortion.

Even before polls closed, Third Way, a group led by moderate Democrats, issued an ominous warning about the party’s damaged brand.

Pennsylvania Lt Gov John Fetterman, Democratic candidate for US Senate, waves to supporters after addressing an election night party in Pittsburgh
Pennsylvania Lt Gov John Fetterman, Democratic candidate for the US Senate, waves to supporters after addressing an election night party in Pittsburgh (Gene J Puskar/AP)

Despite such concerns, history suggests Democrats should have had a much worse night.

Mr Trump’s Republicans lost 40 House seats in the 2018 midterms. Former president Barack Obama’s party lost 63 in 2010. Going back to 1934, the party that occupies the White House has lost on average 28 House seats and four Senate seats.

“We can’t let the whiners and bedwetters win,” Mr Anzalone said. “If you’re facing historically bad headwinds and should have major losses, but you’ve made these races incredibly close, then there are a lot of key races where the Democratic messaging was working.”

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