There was a brief, mad moment back in August when it looked like maybe, just maybe, Democrats might buck one of the oldest and most durable trends in American politics: The party that holds the White House loses seats in Congress during the first midterm election—in fact, an average of 28 seats since 1934.
A string of legislative victories and a little dumb luck gave rise to the hope that Democrats might hold or even increase their majorities. But this moment proved to be all too fleeting, and in the fortnight leading up to Election Day, the narrative had shifted hard in the direction of certain Armageddon and a red wave that was going to be powerful enough to knock Democrats out of believed-to-be-safe seats.
At the time of this writing, there’s still good reason to believe that numbers might trickle back in the direction of a good old-fashioned ass-kicking at the hands of the GOP. Those who remember the 2018 midterms, after all, will recall how what looked like an underwhelming Democratic performance turned into a solid wave election by the time all the dust had settled. But after all the sturm und drang—and the scandalous sums of money that were spent on these midterms—it’s very possible that GOP gains will be less than expected. Maybe far less. Perhaps nothing much is going to change in Washington at all.
There were some early signs that some of the worst-case scenarios—think Kathy Hochul losing the New York governor’s mansion to Republican Lee Zeldin—weren’t in the cards for Democrats. A quick call for Colorado Senator Michael Bennet suggested that some of the big marquee matchups might not be the torrid and drawn-out contests that pundits were expecting. Josh Shapiro put Doug Mastriano away quickly. A pair of Virginia bellwethers found Democrats surviving: first Jennifer Wexton and then Abigail Spanberger. Was that Republican Dan Bolduc, rising in the estimation of the predict-a-tariat in the last several days? Bad news, emerging consensus: Maggie Hassan romped over Bolduc and will once again represent New Hampshire in the U.S. Senate.
Naturally, the night wasn’t all wine and roses for Democrats. Republicans prevailed in many of the races they’d hoped to claim. In the Ohio Senate race, J.D. Vance defeated Democrat Tim Ryan, who at times had looked like he might emerge as a future party standard-bearer. In Texas, Republican Governor Greg Abbott hung another loss around the neck of Beto O’Rourke; his Georgia counterpart, Brian Kemp, did the same to Stacey Abrams. And if there is one horror show for Democrats in tonight’s results, it comes in Florida—there is simply a vast gulf between the triumphant GOP, led by Governor Ron DeSantis, and a state Democratic Party that seems wholly impotent.
But as David Plouffe pointed out during MSNBC’s election night telecast, there were no big surprise GOP wins to point to as a sign of a significant electoral tsunami. Instead, it was Democrats finding these odd and unexpected victories—such as Democrat Greg Landsman ousting incumbent Ohio Representative Steve Chabot and Trump-endorsed North Carolina Republican Representative Bo Hines going down to Democrat Wiley Nickel. Meanwhile, as the hour approached midnight, John Fetterman was in fine fettle, Lauren Boebert was staring down defeat, and several key contests, such as the Senate races in Wisconsin and Georgia, remained tantalizingly close rather than blown wide open by Republican enthusiasm.
Once again, I’ll caution everyone reading these words: In time, things could well shift back in the direction that election touts predicted and that our political history treats as a matter of destiny. Nails shall be chewed to the quick at the Raphael Warnock watch party. In Nevada, Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto is clinging on for dear life in a huge test for the post–Harry Reid Democrats. In Arizona, which has become ground zero for some of the most toxic election denialism in the country, there’s no guarantee that the votes will be peacefully counted. But Democrats can take heart in an unexpected midterm showing that’s set to defy most expectations.