Follow the latest news on the US midterm elections 2022
Even as the Republican Party appeared on track to take control of the US House of Representatives, many Democrats on Wednesday were breathing a sigh of relief after Tuesday’s midterm elections.
Republicans, who had spent weeks attacking President Joe Biden for his low approval ratings, historic inflation and an uncertain economy, had promised their party would enjoy a “red wave” or a “bloodbath”.
The party in opposition usually makes big gains in the midterms and many commentators and pollsters made similar predictions this time.
But American voters confounded expectations, shunning candidates backed by former president Donald Trump, whose endorsement frequently turned into more of a hindrance than a help.
Craig Varoga, a veteran Democratic public affairs and campaign consultant, said the Democrats might have had avoided a drubbing largely thanks to Mr Trump.
If he “had managed to stay out of the 2022 elections, and not hand-pick unqualified candidates in Senate primaries, not campaigned around the country, Republicans probably would be doing a victory lap this morning rather than looking in the mirror and seeing Donald Trump,” Mr Varoga told The National.
The election underscored that Mr Trump and his far-right nationalist movement’s grip on the Republican Party is not something most Americans support.
“There are still swing-voters, they’re not extremists,” Mr Varoga said.
“They don’t want election deniers in office. They also don’t want left-wing Democrats who don’t address crime and inflation.”
Melissa Brown, a board member of Republican Women for Progress, told The National that her party needed a leader “who doesn’t have as much baggage associated with him and who can effectively govern and win re-election”.
But with Republicans poised to take control of the House, Mr Biden will face serious legislative hurdles and come under intense scrutiny that he has thus far avoided.
The fate of the Senate hangs in the balance, and may not be decided until a Georgia run-off election in December.
Democratic pollster Brad Bannon said the Republicans would waste no time picking fights with Mr Biden before the 2024 presidential campaign.
It is going to be very difficult for “Joe Biden to move an agenda forward with divided control … he could barely move his agenda with control of both houses,” Mr Bannon said.
In the months leading up to Tuesday’s elections, Democrats delivered a string of legislative victories, including the climate and healthcare-focused Inflation Reduction Act and a tech-funding bill aimed at increasing US competitiveness with China.
Those victories were largely drowned out by “kitchen table” issues for Americans, though, with soaring inflation and interest rates rises hitting the economy hard.
But Mr Bannon also said that a divided or completely Republican-led Congress gives Democrats a “scapegoat” in the run-up to 2024 presidential elections.
The president can now say, “I proposed X, Y and Z, and the Republican House rejected all my attempts to move this nation forward”, Mr Bannon said.
Mr Varoga said that fact did not outweigh the wider implications of increased Republican control. He predicted they would try to impeach Mr Biden.
“They don’t know on what basis yet, because all they’re trying to do is to even the score about the fact that Donald Trump was impeached twice,” Mr Varoga said.
Despite the Republican Party’s worse-than-expected performance, more than 200 Republicans who had echoed Mr Trump’s baseless claims of fraud in the 2020 elections won statewide or national office.
“Structural problems that we have are intact, the polarisation is intact,” Mr Varoga said.
Ms Brown said she hoped Republicans would focus on policy issues instead of political noise about impeachment and election denial.
“I hope the Republicans would focus mainly on the economy and curbing inflation, pushing for more of taking advantage of America’s energy resources, drilling here to lower gas prices,” she said.
“Divided government will force some Democrats to meet Republicans in the middle and focus on just the issues that are impacting everyday Americans.”
As Mr Biden said on Wednesday, the Republican “Super-Mega-Maga” wing of the party is in the minority. Maga, or Make America Great Again, is the shorthand for Trump Republicans.
The unexpected midterm results have raised questions about polling predictions.
Mr Bannon said the power of the pro-choice vote after the Supreme Court overturning federal abortion rights earlier in the year was deeply underestimated.
“Most of the polls that I saw before the election showed that the concern about inflation was overwhelming the concern about abortion. And that turned out not to be true,” Mr Bannon said.
He quoted exit polls that showed that 37 per cent of voters considered inflation to be their top priority in the election, compared to 32 per cent saying abortion was their main issue of concern.
But for Mr Varoga, there is a bigger picture unfolding in American politics.
“You cannot argue that we live in unconventional times and then rely on conventional wisdom and conventional polling tactics to predict what’s going to happen in the election,” he said.
“I think what we saw in the last 24 hours is that voters in their own way better understand than the elected officials, and the pundits, and much of the media coverage, that these are unconventional times, and they’re willing to give split decisions because they don’t have confidence in either party.”