It was not the midterm election the Republicans expected, and certainly not the result they wanted. Republicans are poised to take the House of Representatives, but far short of the gains they sought.
Sensing that the economy, crime, immigration and an unpopular president had caused the bottom to fall out for Democrats, Republicans went all out to snatch a big majority. Too many voters, however, were not sold on the message of their candidates – especially on abortion rights.
Before the polls closed, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked if she thought the Democrats would “hold on” to the House. “I do,” she said. ”And just because a pundit in Washington says history says you can’t win is no deterrent for the enthusiasm we have out there. So, I think you will be surprised this evening.”
Many in the political class were surprised she was right. Republicans wanted to sweep, but they have fallen short, for now, in taking the Senate.
Who were these Republican candidates who failed what was supposed to be a slam dunk? Most were hand-picked by Donald Trump.
Trump has form in whom he selects to represent his brand. He puts a premium on how they “look”, especially TV celebrities: Dr Mehmet Oz of small-screen pharma fame and Kari Lake, a former news anchor in Arizona. Oz said a woman’s decision on whether to have an abortion should be between her, her doctor and “local political leaders”. Yes, let’s bring them into the exam rooms. Lake, in full Trump mode, attacked the integrity of the voting system and warned the media that she, a media veteran, would be their “worst freaking nightmare” as she stamps out fake news.
Trump likes election deniers: Tim Michaels, a candidate for governor in Wisconsin pledged that if he won, the Republican Party “will never lose another election” in the state. Even if the votes say otherwise. Michaels lost.
Trump likes sports heroes, even if his Senate draft pick for Georgia, Herschel Walker, says he opposes abortion despite him having paid two women he was involved with to end their pregnancies. His former wife says Walker held a gun to her head.
Vote counting continues. It is possible House Democrats will eke out a tiny edge and retain control. It is possible Republicans will win two of Nevada, Arizona and a runoff (in December) in Georgia and keep control of the Senate.
But for the moment there are three true signs in the political heavens. For Democrats, Joe Biden does not face the guillotine. For Republicans, Donald Trump has been staggered. And Florida governor Ron DeSantis may well be anointed.
DeSantis is the big winner. He had a crushing, 20-point victory in his re-election as governor. He overwhelmingly carried Miami-Dade and its Latino neighbourhoods, prying them away from their traditional support for Democrats. He demanded the legislature redistribute Florida’s congressional electorates, delivering three new Republican House seats. DeSantis executed without chaos. Republicans around the country are clamouring to see more of a candidate who embodies Trumpism – but without Trump’s baggage.
For Trump, even if the Republicans do take the House and the Senate, there is bitterness in the party over their angst in getting there. Trump was insistent in his choices for the key Senate races. But they did not deliver an easy win.
Trump’s record in sealing victories for anyone other than himself is thin. As president, Trump’s approval was never above 50 per cent. He lost the House in the 2018 midterms. He lost the White House in 2020. He lost the Senate in January 2021 by failing to help Republicans take two Senate seats in Georgia. Today, he is on the cusp of failing to take back the Senate for Republicans.
Republican strategists will ask: Do we have to go with Trump in 2024 when it looks like we have a more sure-footed winner in DeSantis?
Joe Biden has, once again, with a rude shock to the experts, outperformed. This is the man who lost the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries in 2020 and then stormed to take the nomination. The old man who was firmly adjudged by Democrats to have what it took to take Trump down. And he did.
If, however, in the coming days both the House and Senate turn Republican, it will be a devastating setback for his presidency. Biden will lose confidence within the party. Many will search for a new leader to take them to 2024. But for this moment, Biden is very much alive.
Trump does not have a reverse gear. To change the narrative, regain the initiative, freeze out potential challengers, and let his party know he will brook no treason, expect Trump to announce his presidential run next week. DeSantis knows this and is ready to rumble – but on his own terms and the time of his choosing. Biden sees all this and knows how he can beat Trump again.
With respect to Australia in the fog of these political wars, bipartisan support in Congress for Australia is undiminished. The alliance is solid. Biden is still president. Republicans will be more aggressive on China. This will affect the strategic environment. Republicans will also seek to cap US aid to Ukraine, and this may affect long-term aid from Western allies. Critical issues, but no loss of support for Australia in Washington.