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 Trump.
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 Donnelly (Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) all lost, while fellow Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.) trailed his GOP rival.
The GOP suffered its only Senate loss after 2 a.m. Wednesday when Rep. Jacky Rosen (D) was projected to oust sitting Sen. Dean Heller (R) in Nevada.
But that Democratic victory could be neutralized by results in Montana, where sitting Sen. Jon Tester (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 Cruz (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 Pelosi (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 Blackburn (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 McConnell’s (R-Ky.) face. Trump and McConnell spoke on the phone to congratulate each other on the night’s successes.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (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 Baldwin (Wis.), Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Debbie Stabenow (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 Kavanaugh 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 DeSantis, 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 Schumer (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 Curbelo (R-Fla) and Mike Coffman (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 Clinton 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.
James E Windsor, Overpasses News Desk
November 7th, 2018