Tuesday was the most anticipated, most hyped — and likely most-watched — midterm election of modern times.
The reason was simple: It was widely seen as a referendum on President TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE.
Yet the verdict is far from clear as the dust begins to settle.
Tuesday was an election night where the biggest figures on each side were not clear-cut winners or losers.
The bottom line: The president’s party lost its majority in the House of Representatives.
That is a hugely significant development. It's not just a wound to political pride. It brings with it the specter of ongoing turmoil.
Democrats will now take over House committees and, crucially, gain the ability to subpoena whomever they wish. That could spell real trouble for Trump, his administration and even his business associates.
But it could have been much, much worse.
Democrats will likely gain about 35 seats in the House, though results are not yet final. That is squarely in line with historic norms for a president’s party in his first midterms.
In President Obama’s first midterms, in 2010, Democrats endured a disastrous night, losing 63 seats. In 1994, President Clinton saw his party lose 54 seats.
Just as importantly, Republicans exceeded expectations in the Senate, sweeping at least three Democrats out of the upper chamber. Sens. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyRepublicans may regret restricting reproductive rights Sanders traveling to Iowa, Indiana to pitch Biden's spending package Supreme Court battle could wreak havoc with Biden's 2020 agenda MORE (Ind.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampWashington's oldest contact sport: Lobbyists scrum to dilute or kill Democrats' tax bill Progressives prepare to launch counterattack in tax fight Business groups aim to divide Democrats on .5T spending bill MORE (N.D.) and Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillRepublicans may regret restricting reproductive rights Sunday shows preview: States deal with fallout of Ida; Texas abortion law takes effect Giuliani to stump for Greitens in Missouri MORE (Mo.) all lost, while fellow Democratic Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonTechnology is easy but politics is hard for NASA's Lunar Human Landing System Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — Climate change turning US into coffee country Elon Musk mocks Biden for ignoring his company's historic space flight MORE (Fla.) trailed his GOP rival.
The GOP suffered its only Senate loss after 2 a.m. Wednesday when Rep. Jacky RosenJacklyn (Jacky) Sheryl RosenHeller won't say if Biden won election Former Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Photos of the Week: Infrastructure vote, India floods and a bear MORE (D) was projected to oust sitting Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerTexas abortion law creates 2022 headache for GOP Heller won't say if Biden won election Ex-Sen. Dean Heller announces run for Nevada governor MORE (R) in Nevada.
But that Democratic victory could be neutralized by results in Montana, where sitting Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterThree dead, dozens injured after Amtrak train derailed in Montana The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Biden jumps into frenzied Dem spending talks Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B MORE (D) had fallen slightly behind GOP challenger Matt Rosendale in the early hours of Wednesday.
Trump will undoubtedly claim the GOP’s strong Senate performance as a vindication.
The president’s rallies in the final days of the campaign saw him make two visits each to Indiana, Missouri and Florida, three of the states where the GOP notched its best results.
As results were still coming in, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters, “So far, most of the races where the president has gone in, those candidates are doing extremely well.”
The full ramifications of the loss of the House may take some time to be felt in the Oval Office.
But for now, the president will focus on some sizable silver linings.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas)
O’Rourke was unquestionably the breakout liberal star of the midterm cycle.
His bid to unseat incumbent Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzFBI investigating alleged assault on Fort Bliss soldier at Afghan refugee camp The Memo: Biden's immigration problems reach crescendo in Del Rio Matthew McConaughey on potential political run: 'I'm measuring it' MORE (R-Texas) captured the imagination of liberals far beyond the Lone Star State — and garnered acres of positive media coverage.
O’Rourke raised an astronomical sum of $38.1 million in the third quarter — a figure that had never been equaled in any Senate race.
But he still lost, in the end.
Cruz was projected the winner at around 10:20 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday night. Early Wednesday, with 97 percent of precincts reporting, his lead was about 3 percentage points.
O’Rourke’s charisma and perceived authenticity ensure that he will retain a fervent following. And he can fairly point to the huge inroads that he made — Cruz had won by 15 points in 2012.
But a loss is still a loss. If O’Rourke has further political ambitions — and there is avid speculation that he could run for president — he will have to pursue them without any platform in elected office.
It was a strong night for Democrats in the House. The result is in line with expectations — not a blowout victory but not a squeaker either.
At 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, The New York Times was projecting a Democratic popular vote margin of more than 7 percentage points and a 23-seat majority.
The Democrats will get back the Speakership — probably, but not definitely, for current Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiNorth Dakota Republican latest House breakthrough COVID-19 case Pelosi sets Thursday vote on bipartisan infrastructure bill Cheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump MORE (D-Calif).
They will be able to block most of the president’s domestic agenda. They can also launch impeachment proceedings against Trump if they wish — though there is notably less enthusiasm for that tactic among party leaders than among grass-roots supporters.
It’s a result that will change the whole dynamic of Capitol Hill — and expose Trump to the kind of scrutiny he has never faced before.
Realistically, the night could not have gone much better for the GOP in the Senate. With two competitive races still outstanding — in Arizona and Montana — they have netted somewhere between two and four seats.
Two would be a solid showing. Four would be at the high end of Republican expectations.
Republicans also turned back Democratic challenges adroitly in the couple of states where the opposition party held out some hope of success.
In addition to Cruz’s victory, Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnBig Tech should pay for damaging mental health Facebook to testify in Senate after report finds Instagram harms mental health House Oversight Democrat presses Facebook for 'failure' to protect users MORE (R) easily defeated Democratic opponent Phil Bredesen, a former governor, in Tennessee.
It’s enough to put a wider smile on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHow the Democratic Party's campaign strategy is failing America GOP should grab the chance to upend Pelosi's plan on reconciliation We don't need platinum to solve the debt ceiling crisis MORE’s (R-Ky.) face. Trump and McConnell spoke on the phone to congratulate each other on the night’s successes.
Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSenate poised to battle over Biden's pick of big bank critic Biden taps big bank skeptic to for top regulatory post Schumer announces Senate-House deal on tax 'framework' for .5T package MORE (D-Ohio)
Brown, an often overlooked figure, proved his political appeal once again on Tuesday.
He won reelection by more than 6 points in Ohio — a state that President Trump had carried by 9 points in 2016. Brown’s achievement was all the more notable because his party’s candidate for governor, Richard Cordray, was comfortably defeated by Republican Mike DeWine.
Brown was part of a bigger picture where Democratic senators in the Rust Belt and upper Midwest had a much better time than many of their colleagues.
Sens. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinDemocrats confront 'Rubik's cube on steroids' Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack This week: Democrats kick off chaotic fall with Biden's agenda at stake MORE (Wis.), Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyDemocrats urge Biden to go all in with agenda in limbo House passes bill to ensure abortion access in response to Texas law Democrats surprised, caught off guard by 'framework' deal MORE Jr. (Pa.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Officials want action on cyberattacks Senate panel advances antitrust bill that eyes Google, Facebook This week: Democrats face mounting headaches MORE (Minn.) and Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowDemocrats surprised, caught off guard by 'framework' deal Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B GOP warns McConnell won't blink on debt cliff MORE (Mich.) all won reelection comfortably. Trump carried all of their states, with the exception of Minnesota, in 2016.
But Brown is farther to the left than his Rust Belt colleagues, which makes his success all the more intriguing.
The ease of his victory will fuel speculation about a 2020 White House run by the Ohioan.
Republican gains in the Senate make the process of confirming conservative justices significantly easier.
It also seems clear that the controversy over the confirmation of Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughGraham tries to help Trump and McConnell bury the hatchet Republicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally Senators denounce protest staged outside home of Justice Kavanaugh MORE to the Supreme Court energized voters on the right just as much as the left.
‘The Blue Wave’
The idea that there was going to be a sweeping repudiation of Trump, ousting Republicans from seats in supposedly safe GOP districts, just didn’t materialize.
That’s not to minimize the importance, symbolically and substantively, of the Democrats winning control of the House.
But if anyone on the left still believed that Trump’s 2016 victory was a fluke, or that he would be easily beaten in 2020, voters discharged a warning shot on Tuesday.
Gillum, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Florida, was heralded as an emblem of the future of the party — young, black, progressive and, apparently, electorally magnetic.
Polls showed the Tallahassee mayor as the favorite over Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisAmerica isn't first — it's far behind — and studies point to Republicans Where election review efforts stand across the US Schools without mask mandate 3.5 times more likely to have COVID-19 outbreaks: CDC study MORE, a strongly pro-Trump former congressman, going into Election Day. But the Sunshine State delivered another surprise.
It was a crushing loss for Gillum and for the activists who had rallied to his cause.
Deepening the Democratic gloom, Gillum’s party colleague in Georgia, Stacey Abrams, was also behind in her race for governor, which had been dogged by allegations of malfeasance by her opponent Brian Kemp, who oversees elections in his current post as Georgia’s secretary of state.
Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerAnti-Trump Republicans on the line in 2022 too Democrats urge Biden to go all in with agenda in limbo Democrats press Schumer on removing Confederate statues from Capitol MORE (D-N.Y.)
Scrutiny will inevitably fall on Schumer given Democrats’ disappointing night in the Senate.
His allies will argue that is unfair, given the unforgiving nature of the battleground this year for Democrats. To be sure, it is not clear what alternative strategy Democrats could have adopted that would have delivered better results.
Still, Schumer would have hoped to limit losses on Tuesday to maximize his chances of finally becoming majority leader after the 2020 elections, when the map is more favorable for his party.
That task just became much harder.
The GOP’s Trump critics
Most Republican lawmakers have bound themselves tightly to the president but some members who were fighting for reelection in competitive districts dissented.
Reps. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloNation's fraught politics leads to fear, scars and exits Direct air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy Biden's corporate tax hike is bad for growth — try a carbon tax instead MORE (R-Fla) and Mike CoffmanMichael (Mike) Howard CoffmanColorado governor says he was not exposed to COVID-19 after Aurora mayor tests positive Colorado mayor says he called protesters 'domestic terrorists' out of 'frustration' Colorado governor directs officials to reexamine death of Elijah McClain in police custody MORE (R-Colo.) were two notable examples. Both criticized the White House, particularly for its immigration policies.
Maybe they had no choice. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE carried Curbelo’s heavily Hispanic district by 16 points in 2016 and Coffman’s by 9 points.
But despite their attempts to keep their distance from the president, the two lawmakers lost anyways — heavily, in Coffman’s case.
Separately, “Never Trump” critics within the GOP have long predicted that the president will doom his party.
Tuesday’s mixed bag of results makes him seem less like a ticking time bomb than his GOP critics believe.