Few people expected last night to go well for the Democratic Party. In the nineteen midterms since World War II, sixteen have seen the president’s party lose at least five seats in the House. In that respect, the midterms look to be concluding in extremely conventional fashion. The Democrats will (probably) lose the House and are currently defending their razor-thin majority in the Senate, with as-of-yet undecided races in Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, and Wisconsin to determine control.
It’s still possible, then, that Republicans will ultimately recapture both houses of Congress. What is clear is that the expected and intensely hyped GOP wave has mostly failed to materialize — giving way instead to more scattered and regionally based results throughout the country. With John Fetterman’s win in Pennsylvania, Democrats actually flipped one Senate seat. In neighboring Ohio, Tim Ryan failed to defeat former venture capitalist J. D. Vance but nonetheless managed to outperform Joe Biden’s 2020 result and fight a surprisingly close race. On the flip side, Republicans significantly increased their margins in many states — notably in Florida, where incumbent Governor Ron DeSantis handily defeated Democrat Charlie Crist by well over a million votes.
So, what happened? Following last summer’s assault on reproductive freedoms by an activist right-wing Supreme Court, Republicans appeared to calculate that inflation coupled with Joe Biden’s relative unpopularity would help them mitigate any backlash and, in turn, drive turnout against the governing Democrats. In the final weeks of the campaign, that assumption looked relatively sound. Polling showed that economic issues were top of mind for many voters.
But the Democrats perplexingly neglected to channel their advertising dollars into a forceful message about inflation, the cost of living, or the severe economic pinch millions of Americans are feeling. As of September, nearly two-thirds of Americans were living paycheck to paycheck. The cost of food, meanwhile, has increased some 13 percent since just last fall, with the price of some essential items like dairy and bread up even more.
It’s likely these things did help drive GOP turnout, but exit polls suggest that the Republicans’ extreme position on abortion indeed elicited a significant backlash: nearly two-thirds of voters said they were unhappy with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and, of those, more than two-thirds voted to send a Democrat to the House. Alongside inflation, abortion rights were ultimately a top concern for voters.
The net result looks to be neither a red wave nor a shock blue triumph, but instead a fairly conventional midterm election. Regardless of how it may have defied expectations, such an outcome is less a victory for the Democratic Party than it is a defeat for the GOP. By losing the House, Democrats will almost certainly guarantee two years of legislative gridlock going into 2024. For Republicans, however, the midterms are a case study in how ideological overreach can imperil what should have been an open goal.