The Republicans had hoped for a sweeping victory at the US midterm elections on Tuesday but made only slight gains in the house and lost a crucial seat in the senate. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Democrats hold back red tide at midterms

Democrat John Fetterman defeated Republican candidate Mehmet Oz in a midterm senate race in Pennsylvania.
Democrat John Fetterman defeated Republican candidate Mehmet Oz in a midterm senate race in Pennsylvania.
Credit: Jeff Swensen / Getty Images / AFP

No red wave

In the end, as United States President Joe Biden declared on Wednesday, the “giant red wave – it didn’t happen”.

The Republicans had hoped for a sweeping victory at the US midterm elections on Tuesday but made only slight gains in the house and lost a crucial seat in the senate. The elections involved contests for all 435 house seats and 35 of the 100 senate seats. With counting still under way, the Democrats were tipped to hold 50 seats in the senate – an effective majority as the vice president can break tied votes. In the house, the Republicans were expected to gain a 224-211 majority.

In the past century, the average number of house seats picked up by the opposition in midterms is 28; the Republicans were expected to pick up about 10. And the Republicans failed to pick up a senate seat – just the seventh time that an opposition has failed to do so in the past century – though Democrat-held Georgia will have a runoff next month after neither candidate received 50 per cent of the vote. The results were disappointing for the Republicans, especially as the US is in the grip of spiralling inflation and Biden has dismal approval ratings.

But concerns about abortion rights – after Republican-appointed Supreme Court judges overturned a constitutional right to pregnancy termination – appeared to have boosted support for the Democrats and encouraged turnout among its voters. An exit poll found 32 per cent of voters named inflation as their main concern, followed by 27 per cent who named abortion rights, 12 per cent each who said gun policy and crime, and 10 per cent who named immigration.

The likely Democratic loss of a majority in the house will make it difficult – if not impossible – for Biden to deliver his legislative agenda. He will now struggle to pass measures on climate change, voting rights and abortion access. But Biden, who was a senator for 36 years, has a strong record of delivering bipartisan legislation, and the Republicans, if they prove as obstructive as their leaders have promised, will risk taking the blame for the nation’s ailing economy and policy paralysis.

Fetterman flips Pennsylvania

John Fetterman is a 2.03-metre Harvard graduate who gave up his corporate job to become a social worker and then mayor in Braddock, a small borough in his home state of Pennsylvania. He famously likes to wear hoodies and has nine tattoos in a row on his forearm that show the dates of the deaths of victims of violence during his term as mayor.

In one of the most closely watched contests of the midterms, Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, ran for a senate seat in Pennsylvania that was held by a retiring Republican. His opponent was Mehmet Oz, a Harvard graduate who became a heart surgeon and then a celebrity television doctor and star of The Dr. Oz Show. Oz, who promoted hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19, was endorsed by Donald Trump, a fellow celebrity turned politician.

The campaign in Pennsylvania was bitter and dominated by Oz’s gaffes and questions about Fetterman’s health after he had a stroke in May.

But Fetterman, a self-described populist who pushed to raise the minimum wage and supported public healthcare, won convincingly on Tuesday, receiving 50.6 per cent of the vote compared with 46.9 per cent for Oz. The victory not only flipped a crucial Republican-held senate seat but also was seen as an important indicator of how the Democrats can win support from white working-class voters in battleground states – a group that formerly supported Democrats but has increasingly favoured Trump.

Greeting his jubilant supporters on Wednesday, wearing a hoodie and jeans, Fetterman said: “This campaign has always been about fighting for everyone who’s ever been knocked down that ever got back up.”

Election deniers

Of 569 Republican candidates for various federal and state offices on Tuesday, at least 291 – or 51 per cent – had reportedly backed Donald Trump’s baseless claim that his 2020 election loss was rigged.

But the deniers had mixed results on Tuesday.

In Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, a state senator who chartered buses to ferry supporters to Washington on January 6, 2021 – the day of the Capitol attack – resoundingly lost his gubernatorial race. In Arizona, Kari Lake, a former news anchor who claimed she would not have certified the 2020 election results, was looking shaky in her hopes for a  for a narrow win in her bid to be governor.

According to The New York Times, at least 170 election deniers and sceptics – including many incumbents who opposed the 2020 results – were elected to the house. At least 16 Republican sceptics were elected to the senate. Many of the deniers ran in staunch Republican areas, and most campaigned on other issues such as cost of living. But their victories – including the success of state governors, secretaries of state and attorneys-general – could increase the chances that Republican officials may refuse to certify results at the next presidential election, especially if Trump runs again and loses again.

Trump’s new rival

Donald Trump had endorsed hundreds of candidates at the midterms and was widely expected to follow up an anticipated Republican triumph with an announcement that he will run for president in 2024.

Instead, the “interesting results” – as Trump put it – have raised questions about whether the party’s loyalty to him is proving electorally damaging.

Troy Nehls, a Republican from Texas who was re-elected to the house and was endorsed by Trump, said in an interview on Wednesday: “There’s just a lot of negative attitudes about Trump.”

Trump now has a serious contender for the leadership of the Republican Party – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who defied the electoral trend on Tuesday and won a landslide victory in his re-election bid.

DeSantis won 59 per cent of the vote, including a majority of Latino voters – 57 per cent – compared with 46 per cent who supported Trump in 2020. At a victory party, supporters of DeSantis screamed “Two more years!”, implying he will cut his four-year term short to run for president.

DeSantis, sometimes described as “Trump with a brain”, opposed mask-wearing during Covid-19 waves, is anti-abortion and pushed to limit discussion in schools of sexual orientation, gender identity and the history of race. Trump, fearing the looming threat of a DeSantis candidacy, has described him as “DeSanctimonious”.

On Tuesday, Trump threatened to reveal “things about him that won’t be very flattering”.

“If he runs, he could hurt himself very badly,” Trump told Fox News. “I know more about him than anybody – other than, perhaps, his wife.”

The midterm results have also raised the prospects that Biden will run for a second term in 2024, at the age of 81. The Democrats suffered much worse defeats at midterms following the elections of his Democratic predecessors, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, who presided over losses of 63 and 52 house seats, respectively.

On Wednesday, Biden said he plans to stand for re-election but will decide early next year after consulting his family. Asked about the two-thirds of Americans who do not want him to run, he told reporters: “Watch me.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 12, 2022 as "Democrats hold back red tide at midterms".

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