Skip to main content

Supporters wait for results at the Republican Party of Arizona's 2022 U.S. midterm elections night rally in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Nov. 9.BRIAN SNYDER/Reuters

Years from now – in the fevered midterm elections of an unimaginable future, when the stakes will be high and the tactics will be low – scholars and commentators may cast their weary eyes on what happened across the vast continental expanse of the United States in 2022 and struggle for a metaphor, a historical allusion, an evocative symbol to explain the behaviour of a divided country struggling to be decisive about its national direction.

A ripple, they may say of these midterms – not a tsunami, nor even a Red Wave. An Alamo, perhaps – though unlike the 1836 massacre that is a morbid but romantic element of the Texas Revolution, there were survivors. A sleeve of movie-house popcorn, maybe – the product of a burst of shaking, a blast of heat and a riot of activity followed by an application of sweet butter – but with some kernels burned and others left unpopped.

This was an election with important consequences that thrust a new roster onto Capitol Hill. It provided a tentative balm to some (Democrats, mostly, though they err if they take comfort in an election that still must be regarded as a setback), and a wound to others (who calculated that cozying up to an embattled former president would provide them with a lance, a crossbow and a shield).

It transformed the American political landscape and the Washington political calculus. It added a jolt of caffeine to the 2024 presidential election. It raised fresh questions about the impact of former president Donald Trump. And – the exit polls show this clearly – it demonstrated that many Americans are concerned about the survival of their fragile democracy.

As U.S. midterm results continue to come in, Republican hopes for ‘red kingdom’ fade

All that, but even with the likely Republican takeover of the House of Representatives – a significant development that would change the way Washington works, or more likely, with another bout of split government, provide more evidence that Washington doesn’t work – these midterms also may be remembered for much that didn’t happen.

The polls didn’t forecast the results. The most prominent and most ardent election deniers and conspiracy warriors didn’t win mass numbers of elections. The candidates farthest outside the bounds of conventional political behaviour didn’t bound into the inner suites of power. The wounded sitting President wasn’t sent into reclining palliative care. The former president didn’t have occasion to raise his angry fist in triumph. The Democrats – at least at this hour – didn’t surrender the Senate and the vital ability to confirm judges and justices.

These were the first contests after a violent insurrection at the Capitol, which since Abraham Lincoln was president (and when the scaffoldings on the neoclassical landmark spoke of a nation still under construction) has served as a physical symbol of the country’s aspirations. These were the first midterms after a bruising pandemic left more than a million Americans dead and left the medical establishment – and conventional expertise itself – in tatters. This was the first time a former president essentially ran against the system that put him in office in the first place and sought to install a Praetorian Guard in one branch of the government (and in state offices across the country) to escort him back into the White House.

In Pennsylvania, a stroke victim struck a blow for disability rights while capturing a Senate seat held by a retiring Republican; John Fetterman, aided by last-hour visits from President Joe Biden and former president Barack Obama, defeated celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, whose endorsement by Mr. Trump may have been more of a burden than a boon.

In Florida, the political protégé had a better night than his sponsor; Republican Governor Ron DeSantis won a decisive re-election battle that set him up for a challenge to the second-term hopes of Mr. Trump, his increasingly bitter instate rival. Political professionals took special note of the strong DeSantis showing in Democratic Miami-Dade County and his majorities among women, Hispanics and suburbanites.

Across the country, inflation was a motivating issue – but abortion rights still had political power. Women won heavily contested gubernatorial races in Michigan, Maine and New York against Trump-endorsed challengers. Maryland elected its first Black governor and Massachusetts its first female (and first lesbian) governor; both were Democrats replacing Republicans.

Still, major questions remained.

One is the power of Mr. Trump to dominate the American conversation – whether his efforts to anoint candidates for political office has the unintended effect of annoying voters. He helped send J.D. Vance into the Senate in Ohio – not a GOP pickup because the author and agent provocateur replaces a retiring Republican – but his sway, over the Republican Party and perhaps over the broader country, seemed diminished. Indeed, in some quarters he seemed more a distraction for GOP efforts than an advantage for the party. Even so, the 45th president has a history of declaring victory even in defeat, and surely in the coming days he will cast away the chaff and take succour in the withered wheat of the election.

But the greatest uncertainties linger in the set of unresolved contests coast to coast. In them is the resolution of the more immediate political question: who will hold power on Capitol Hill?

That may require forbearance from a country known for its impatience. The Senate race in Georgia will go to a runoff on Dec. 6, raising yet another question: can an exhausted body politic hold its breath for another four weeks?