The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The vaunted red wave never hit the shore in midterm elections

Change has been the constant in America’s congressional elections, turning more on anger and dissatisfaction than on hope and optimism. This year was President Biden’s and the Democrats’ time to feel the voters’ discontent.

The media setup at watch party hosted by Michigan Democrats at Sound Board Theater in Detroit on Tuesday night. (Nick Hagen for The Washington Post)

In the closing days of the 2022 campaign, Republicans were in a bullish mood. They believed that after a difficult summer, the momentum of the midterm elections had swung decisively in their direction.

Election night proved to be more problematic. The vaunted red wave never hit the shore.

Republicans remained confident that when all the results were tallied, they would control the House, though likely by a margin that would fall short of their projections. The Senate, meanwhile, was turning out as predicted, with control in the balance and a handful of seats not called and not likely to be for days.

The pattern for the night was set relatively early, as seats Republicans thought they would flip were agonizingly close and some went against their expectations. One was in Virginia, where Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D) was reelected; another was in Rhode Island, where Seth Magaziner (D) prevailed. Other races Republicans had expressed confidence in winning were turning out to be more competitive than thought.

The Georgia race between Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and Republican challenger Herschel Walker is headed to a Dec. 6 runoff election. (Video: The Washington Post)

Candidate quality also appeared to be a problem for Republicans. In the Georgia Senate race, Democratic incumbent Raphael G. Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker were in a virtual tie all evening. Walker, whose troubled past had dogged him throughout the election, was running several points behind Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who easily won his reelection over Democrat Stacey Abrams. And in Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) was projected to win a hard-fought race for an open Senate seat.

Midterm elections are always a referendum on the president. Try as Biden did to make it a choice between his leadership and that of former president Donald Trump and what he labeled the “MAGA Republicans,” it was in fact more of a referendum on the incumbent administration than anything else. But this has been an unusual election year, one in which some of the normal rules have not applied. If it was a referendum on Biden, it was also a referendum on the Republicans and America itself.

It was the first balloting since rioters attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an attempt to aid Trump in his quest to overturn the 2020 election results and remain in power. It also was the first election since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to an abortion that had stood for half a century. And it was the first campaign in which the label “election deniers” was applied to hundreds of candidates around the country — all of them running as Republicans.

Press Enter to skip to end of carousel
Get the latest 2022 election updates
Senate control
Democrats will keep Senate majority after winning eight out of the nine seats rated competitive by Cook Political Report. The only remaining race will be decided in Georgia in a Dec. 6 runoff — here’s how it will work.
House control
Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, creating a split Congress and dealing a blow to President Biden and his agenda.
What the results mean for 2024
A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign on Tuesday, ignoring the advice of longtime allies who encouraged him to delay the announcement.

1/3

End of carousel

For over a decade, change has been the constant in America’s congressional elections, a seemingly never-ending struggle for power in a closely and deeply divided nation. Through these years, congressional elections have turned on anger and dissatisfaction more than on hope and optimism. This year was President Biden’s and the Democrats’ time to feel the voters’ discontent — and the unhappiness was widespread, even as Democrats in some hotly contested races were holding on.

About 7 in 10 voters in these midterm elections said they were either angry or dissatisfied with the state of the country, and slightly more said the country was heading in the wrong direction, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research. About 1 in 3 cited inflation as the most important issue in their vote.

As the first waves of votes were coming in from states around the country, nothing appeared likely to change the prevailing pattern of constant change — in this case putting Republicans on a path to claim a majority in the House, which the odds have favored that outcome all year. The real suspense as the night went on was whether those gains would be big or not so big — and here, Republicans were forced to wait for more results before knowing what the future House would look like.

The recent pattern of change began in 2006, when Democrats scored major gains during George W. Bush’s presidency and took control of the House and Senate. In 2010, under President Barack Obama, they surrendered the House, and in 2014 they lost control of the Senate. In 2018, Democrats reclaimed the House and two years later the Senate. If Democrats were to lose both the House and Senate, Biden would be yet another president who saw control of Congress shift on his watch.

By early Wednesday, the balance of power in the Senate depended on the outcome of competitive contests in a handful of states. With late poll closings out West and expected slow counting of mail-in ballots in some places, a definitive answer to the question of who would be in the majority may not be forthcoming for days or perhaps longer.

By 2 a.m. Wednesday, the only Senate seat to switch party control was in Pennsylvania, where Fetterman was projected to defeat Republican Mehmet Oz to succeed the retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R). Meanwhile, Democrats retained Sen. Maggie Hassan’s seat in New Hampshire, one that Republicans saw as a potential pickup that would signal a banner night for the party.

Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman declared victory over his Republican opponent Mehmet Oz on Nov. 9. (Video: The Washington Post)

The House results alone — assuming the Republicans netted the five seats they needed to take control, an outcome Democratic officials were widely expecting — would be enough to shake up Washington, enough to throw Biden and the Democrats on the defensive after two years in which they controlled — barely — the main levers of power in the capital.

For Republicans, with power comes the obligation to govern — and to avoid the voters’ wrath two years hence. The last time they were in control of the presidency, the House and the Senate, which was after Trump was elected president in 2016, they stumbled badly on a pledge to eliminate the Affordable Care Act, squabbled among themselves and were saddled with unhappiness over Trump’s conduct in office. In 2018 they lost the House, and in 2020 the Senate.

Republicans tried to take advantage of prevailing public sentiment about inflation and crime and Biden’s low approval ratings. Republican candidates said they can bring down the cost of living, deal with crime and secure the southern border, but they have provided only scant policy details. Voters have shown time and again that they have limited patience awaiting results.

Preliminary exit polls showed an electorate, at least in terms of its composition, quite similar to that of the last midterm elections, in 2018, when Democrats scored major gains. But in some cases, the margins appeared more favorable to Republicans than they were four years ago.

Though not definitive, older voters were more Republican this year than in 2018. The preliminary exit polls shows signs of slippage for Democrats among Latinos and possibly among Black voters. White women without college degrees were voting even more strongly for Republicans this year than in 2018. But those are national percentages and do not provide state-by-state or district-by-district comparisons.

This midterm election was unusual in the way it unfolded, anything but a straight trajectory and one that added to the suspense. The election ended much as it had begun, but the middle months of 2022 were anything but normal.

For Democrats, the political climate has been poor from the beginning. Last April, John Anzalone, who was Biden’s lead pollster in 2020, remarked in a Politico interview that what he was seeing in polls and focus groups added up to “the worst political environment in my lifetime.”

The economy, in the words of one Democrat on Tuesday, was “wretched,” mainly because of inflation running at its highest pace in four decades. The economy was adding jobs and the unemployment rate hovered around 3.5 percent most of the year, but that did little to soothe the concerns of voters, many of whom fixated on rising grocery and gas prices.

Internationally, the world was anything but peaceful. The Russian invasion of Ukraine united the West but at a cost that will be felt well into next year. Tensions with China continued to increase. At a time of problems at home, instability abroad added to voters’ worries.

The sour mood that has gripped the country now for some years continued apace, compounded by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic that disrupted daily life, cost more than a million Americans their lives and set back progress for schoolchildren.

All of that was brewing in the first half of 2022 — and then things changed. In June, the Supreme Court overturned Roe, throwing open a long-brewing debate. The decision caused an immediate shift in election calculations, as many women and some men responded with anger and determination to use the ballot box to express their dismay.

Republicans who long had pushed for the court ruling saw a shift in support toward the Democrats, and an August ballot issue in Kansas showed the power of the abortion rights movement, when voters overwhelmingly said they did not want to remove those rights from the state constitution.

Exit polls showed that about 3 in 10 voters cited abortion as the most important issue in their vote. That was smaller than the number who named inflation, but not by a huge margin. About 6 in 10 said they were angry or dissatisfied with the court’s decision.

Trump and democracy were similarly elevated as issues during the same stretch of summer months, thanks principally to public hearings from the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack. Biden especially picked up the theme, delivering two speeches on the topic, including one in the closing days of the campaign. “Democracy is on the ballot” became a rallying cry for some Democrats.

But elections are about fundamentals, and the gravitational pull of traditional issues, principally the economy, remained a powerful force that seemed to reassert itself in the closing weeks of the campaign. A question heading into Election Day was whether the two issues buoying Democrats would be enough to truly blunt the winds at the backs of Republican candidates.

As the returns continued to come in Wednesday morning, that question remained unanswered, though it was not the night Republican leaders had anticipated.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.

Loading...