For a president continually struggling with low approval ratings, the midterms provided a stunning result as the widely anticipated Republican red wave failed to materialize.
Although Democrats look set to lose their majority in the House, it is by a much smaller margin than either history or today’s pollsters anticipated. Democrats have maintained their majority in the Senate, a result that was confirmed four days after election day when Senator Catherine Cortez Masto won reelection. The final Senate seat will be decided by a 6 December run-off in the state of Georgia.
The midterm elections were not good for the Republican party but were especially bad for Donald Trump who has until now managed to defy expectations and maintain his grip on the party even after his 2020 defeat at the polls.
Trump managed to win the presidency once but he lost the popular vote twice and at no stage during his time in office did his approval ratings go above 40 per cent. Now, after six years of the most divisive and disruptive leadership the US has ever seen, he has presided over the worst midterm results a party out of power has suffered in two decades.
Trump’s influence is on the wane
Many of the candidates endorsed by the former president – including in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Arizona – lost. In Georgia, the Republican governor and Trump GOP rival won, despite Trump’s opposition, and the candidate he endorsed for the US Senate has come up short of the 50 per cent needed to get over the line in the first round.
Trump’s nemesis, Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, won a second four-year term in a landslide. Trump is suffering attacks from his own party and many loyal media supporters, such as Fox News, the New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal. None of this bodes well for the prospect of Trump leading the party through the 2024 presidential election.
After six years of chaos, this upset has been delivered with remarkably little chaos and, so far, no violence in a win for democracy and stability in the US which will reverberate beyond the US shores.
The system has worked, with multiple elections held across all 50 states. Hotly contested seats were decided peacefully even when the margins were thin. The midterm elections were also a win for democracy. In every battleground state, election deniers that were nominated to run for offices that would control state election systems, including in the 2024 presidential elections, have been defeated.
For a country with a polarized electorate and a radical Republican leader who has continued to spread disinformation and sought to rile his base, this election has been surprisingly normal.
This means the debate about the future of America’s international leadership is postponed. Biden is still in the saddle and, instead of a battle for control inside the Democratic party, it is the Republicans who look set to descend into internal conflict and recrimination.
The unofficial contest to win the Republican nomination for president has already begun. Donald Trump has signalled loudly that he plans to run. If he does, it could impact Republican prospects in the 6 December runoff for the final seat in the Senate. DeSantis may also run and could be followed by several aspiring Republican candidates. A disrupted party facing a period of significant change seems likely.
Inflation and the economy proved key factors
As always, foreign policy barely featured in the elections but the result promises a period of continuity. Instead of facing dangerous sniping on Ukraine from an emboldened Republican House leadership, the Biden administration looks set to hold to its Ukraine policy.
Biden’s increasingly hard-line policy on China will continue to be qualified by a clear-headed determination – however hard – to cooperate on climate. Trade policy will remain stuck, as will US policy in the developing world.
Exit polls show Democrats were motivated to vote by the reversal of Roe vs Wade and the restrictions on abortion rights that followed, while Republicans voted against inflation.
But Democrats at the national level continually failed to effectively communicate the positive impacts of Biden’s legislative agenda for ordinary Americans, or to deliver a clear economic message.
The national leadership veered from abortion rights to the Inflation Reduction Act, to the future of democracy in the US – all of which proved too complicated to cut through.
The state level shows a more complex picture because inflation and the economy – which could have swept Republicans to victory – were blunted by dogged local campaigning from Democrats who knew their voters and spoke to the cost-of-living concerns which were top of their minds.