Republicans had hoped for a red wave. What they got looked more like purple rain.
As Tuesday night turned into Wednesday morning, what was once a foregone conclusion of the 2022 midterms was now up in the air. It’s possible, perhaps even more likely than not, that Republicans will take back the House of Representatives. And the GOP could still win the Senate. But it is also possible that Democrats and President Joe Biden will end up with an historic night.
Democrats always expected to lose seats in the House. That much still looked like a solid bet, after a few seats were redistricted out of Democratic control. What no one seemed to expect, however, was that Democrats could possibly restrain a GOP majority to just a few seats—or even potentially retain the majority themselves.
Should Republicans reclaim the House, not much will change. Republicans still wouldn’t be able to turn their legislative wish list into laws. They may not even be able to pass their most partisan ideas out of the House—or impeach Biden as his political foe, former President Donald Trump, has urged.
The one thing that would be different is that Republicans would be able to use the House as a political cudgel—an investigative buzzsaw to sidetrack the administration and cast a cloud of controversy over Biden.
That was potentially the good news for the GOP, on a night when Republicans had to squint to see much of that. The bad news was obvious.
Instead of the robust GOP majority of their electoral dreams, voters will give either party a razor-thin advantage—so slender that even if Republicans win, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s ascension to the speakership is already in question.
In the final weeks of the midterm season, expectations ran wild, with Republicans dumping millions of dollars into once-solidly blue seats. Republicans weren’t just measuring the drapes; they were planning to redecorate the whole House.
Democrats, shaken by their tanking poll numbers and historical trends, worried that Republicans could have dozens of seats to spare in the House and a multi-seat majority in the Senate.
But as results rolled in Tuesday night and early Wednesday, that scenario vanished and Republicans were left clinging to the hope that they could at least turn one of the chambers.
After four years of Democratic control in the House, two years of unified control between Congress and the White House, and a year of inflation driving voter concerns, the GOP seemed poised to ride a tide of dissatisfaction into power.
Even with plenty of races yet to be called, it was clear that Republicans wouldn’t be winning the seats they’d expected to constitute the foundation of their majorities. John Fetterman pulled out a narrow victory in Pennsylvania against Dr. Mehmet Oz to flip the Senate seat there. The GOP fell flat in New Hampshire, with Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and both Democratic House lawmakers—Reps. Chris Pappas and Annie Kuster—winning re-election.
And Republicans struck out on a number of other targets: Democratic Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and Henry Cuellar (D-TX), won their races. The GOP failed to flip an open Rhode Island seat that Allan Fung, a prized McCarthy recruit, was hyped to win. And Republicans lost competitive open seats in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
In fact, by 1 a.m. ET, just two Democratic incumbents, Reps. Elaine Luria (D-VA) and Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), had lost. Somehow, Democrats had flipped two GOP-held seats of their own in the state of Ohio alone. In Michigan, GOP extremist John Gibbs defeated the more moderate Rep. Peter Meijer (R-MI) in the primary—and then lost to Democrat Hillary Scholten on Tuesday night.
There is the chance that news gets much better for Republicans. That was the story in 2018, when Democrats slowly chipped away at the GOP majority over weeks as votes were counted, before arriving at a 40-seat gain. And of the Senate races yet to be called, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, and Wisconsin were all too close.
But the initial indications were clear: This wasn’t the night Republicans hoped for or expected. The longshot Senate races that Republicans thought they had an outside chance of flipping—including in Colorado with Sen. Michael Bennet, and in Washington with Sen. Patty Murray—weren’t close. The governor races that Republicans hoped to capture—such as New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Maine—stayed blue. And a number of the close Senate races, while yet to be called, looked promising for Democrats.
It’s those few Senate races, as well as a handful of undecided House races, that will determine control of both chambers. But with such small margins either way, the leadership races for both Democrats and Republicans are a lot more unpredictable than they were before Election Day.
Tempering the good news for Democrats is the reality that the Republicans who were elected Tuesday are decidedly more Republican and more extreme than ever before.
The majority of GOP nominees did not recognize Biden as the legitimate president. Many said the election was stolen. And the majority of the returning Republicans voted to invalidate the election on Jan. 6—just hours after a violent coup attempt.
All of the Republicans elected Tuesday are committed to a decidedly different direction than the one Biden and Democrats have laid out. And with such an evenly but bitterly divided Congress, consensus will be a difficult goal no matter who holds the majority.