It was a disappointing weekend for Republicans and ex-President Donald Trump as Democrats kept the Senate for two more years after holding off a red wave in the House, which remains uncalled six days after the election.
The weekend marked a moment of vindication for President Joe Biden, whose party defied history by staving off a midterm election drubbing, and a moment of truth for some Republicans who had tethered themselves to Trump’s election fraud lies.
And even with the GOP appearing to slowly march toward House control – promising to make Biden’s life deeply uncomfortable for the rest of his term with investigations into his administration and even his son, Hunter – the probable Republican majority will be smaller, and therefore more fractious, with the most radical lawmakers having more leverage.
As Trump presses on with a campaign launch set for Tuesday, the GOP’s loss of the Senate and competitive races nationwide raised new questions about his chances of winning back the White House. Meanwhile, the defeat of several high-profile election deniers boosted Biden’s global campaign for democracy – a central part of his 2022 campaign message – as he heads into talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Cambodia and prepares for a possible rematch with his predecessor.
Democrats hold onto the Senate
Political parties are pointless unless they win power. So it’s obvious why Democrats are celebrating the come-from-behind victory of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada Saturday night that handed them their 50th seat and control of the Senate.
They wouldn’t have held on at this point, though, without John Fetterman’s win last week in Pennsylvania, where Democrats picked up a GOP-held seat. Had Republicans held that seat, Senate control would have come down to the Georgia runoff in December, which, while still massively important for shaping the balance of power, will matter less than the 2021 runoffs that handed Democrats the Senate in the last election.
Senate control is huge for multiple reasons, not least because by pulling it off in deeply unpromising political conditions, Democrats cemented the most stunning showing for an incumbent president’s party in a first-term midterm election since George W. Bush in 2002.
“I think one thing that pundits and prognosticators missed was that in all the incendiary ads that blanketed the airwaves for weeks, people knew the Democrats were getting things done for them,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters on Saturday night after CNN and other media outlets projected the Nevada race.
The failure to pick up Nevada and Senate control is already having reverberations inside the Senate GOP, with calls from Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of Senate Republicans campaign arm, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham to delay Wednesday’s leadership elections until after the Georgia runoff. Scott said he’d been approached by “a lot of people” about standing against Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, with whom he’d had significant messaging disagreements during the midterms. Still, it likely won’t be lost on many lawmakers that the party fell short on Scott’s watch.
More importantly, the Democrats’ continued hold on power gives Biden two more years to remake the judiciary and to counter the influx of conservative judges confirmed during Trump’s presidency. In the event that a vacancy arose on the Supreme Court, a Democratic-led Senate would have a good chance of installing a new justice to start to weaken the current conservative majority.
The failure of Republicans to capture control means that the White House will be spared a relentless onslaught of Senate investigations and subpoenas to match those likely to be pouring out of the House if, as expected, the GOP finally clinches a majority in that chamber. This represents a significant personal and political benefit for Biden.
And while a Republican House would mean few legislative wins for the president, Schumer will be able to protect his senators from tough votes that could hurt them in reelection campaigns in 2024, when they’ll be defending seats in tough states like Montana, Ohio, Nevada and Arizona.
The unexpectedly strong Democratic performance, which will leave both chambers essentially split down the middle, means that the 2024 presidential election is even more critical. A popular candidate on either side could have strong coattails and sweep their party into a monopoly in power in Washington.
Why Georgia still matters for Democrats
The final numbers in the Senate will not be known until the runoff in Georgia on December 6 between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican nominee Herschel Walker. If Warnock, who’s running for a full six-year term, hangs on, Democrats will have a 51-49 majority.
A two-seat margin is clearly better for Democrats than having to rely on the tie-breaking vote wielded by Vice President Kamala Harris. It also gives them a small cushion if one of their members becomes sick or incapacitated and lessens the chance they will lose their majority at some point in the new Congress.
A 51-49 margin would also be a Joe Manchin-proof majority, meaning that the West Virginia moderate Democratic senator might not enjoy the veto he has held the past two years over Schumer’s intentions. If Manchin decides to run for reelection in 2024 in a state where Trump won big twice, he’s likely to become an even tougher vote for Democratic leadership. Earlier this month, for instance, the coal state senator lashed out at the president over his climate change policies.
And a clear majority for Democrats means that Schumer would not need a deal with McConnell on parceling out committee assignments and would have far more control over the process – a fact former veteran senator Biden noted in reacting to the Senate win in Phnom Penh over the weekend.
The Republicans still haven’t taken the House
In a moment of bravado late on Election Night, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy assured activists who put a victory party on hold, “When you wake up, we’ll be in the majority.” Six embarrassing days later, he’s still waiting. Final results now hinge on races in California, Arizona and Oregon that may not be finalized for days, underscoring the disappointing GOP performance. Republicans currently have 212 House seats and Democrats have 204. A total of 218 is needed for a majority.
It’s still most likely that the Republicans will control the House with a narrow majority. Democrats need an improbable near-perfect run through remaining seats to stay in power. But McCarthy’s predictions of a huge win backfired and are making his expected smooth path to the speakership rather rocky.
Hard-liners in the House Freedom Caucus are demanding large concessions – which could render his leadership toothless – in return for supporting him for the top job. Those more extreme lawmakers would also be able to leverage the thin majority in the GOP to weaponize the House in the service of Trump’s 2024 campaign. CNN reported Sunday that Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs is considering a challenge to McCarthy in the House leadership elections on Tuesday – a move that could ultimately weaken the current minority leader and expose anger over the GOP’s performance, even if his team insists he will have the votes to be speaker.
While the pro-Trump radical right will seek to dominate the House GOP if the party does get a majority, Republicans did pick up some key Democratic-held House seats, with some of those incoming Republicans likely to be among the party’s most vulnerable members in 2024. How McCarthy will reconcile their needs with the Trump caucus, which is itching to impeach Biden, is unclear.
While a battle is emerging over the Republican House leadership, the current limbo means an expected Democratic tussle to succeed Nancy Pelosi is frozen. The speaker said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that she was making no decisions while the destiny of the House was undecided. After the brutal attack on her husband, the 82-year-old speaker said family and political considerations could weigh on her future. But she’s not tipping her hand.
“I’m not asking anybody for everything. People are campaigning. And that’s a beautiful thing,” the California Democrat quixotically told CNN’s Dana Bash when asked whether she might feel motivated to stay on as leader. “I’m not asking anyone for anything. My members are asking me to consider doing that. But, again, let’s just get through the election.”
‘Three strikes and you are out’
Trump is being blamed by a broad group of Republican leaders and political analysts for saddling his party’s extreme, untested candidates with a failed message – an obsession with his 2020 election fraud falsehoods.
“I think it’s basically the third election in a row that Donald Trump has cost us the race. And it’s like, three strikes, you’re out,” Maryland GOP Gov. Larry Hogan said on “State of the Union” on Sunday.
The problem with Hogan’s analogy is that even when Trump has been down politically – after the 2018 blue wave in the House, his 2020 election loss and the 2021 Capitol insurrection – he’s never struck out with the fervent grassroots Republican base that set him on the way to the White House in 2016 and still adores him.
Trump had expected to ride out of this weekend on a wave of Republican euphoria after a bumper election he’d hoped to claim as his doing and enlist it to power his campaign for the 2024 Republican presidential nod.
Yet some of Trump’s favored candidates, including Pennsylvania’s Mehmet Oz in the Senate race and Doug Mastriano in the gubernatorial race, lost. One of the most high-profile election deniers, Kari Lake, is still locked in a close contest with Democrat Katie Hobbs in Arizona’s governor’s race, which CNN has not yet projected.
Voters might have been unhappy with the Democrats and Biden’s record on inflation. But they balked at handing power to Republican radicals in Trump’s election-denying and chaos-causing image.
Yet Trump, true to form, is powering ahead. His adviser Jason Miller confirmed on Steve Bannon’s podcast that the ex-president’s planned big announcement on Tuesday at Mar-a-Lago will be the launch of a new presidential campaign – even before the 2022 midterm election will be finalized. Trump’s recent rallies suggest he’s only doubling down on his election fraud lies, even though they were rebuffed by midterm voters.
One new wrinkle now is that there may be alternatives to Trump in the GOP. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for instance, showed he knows how to build a strong majority with his thumping reelection victory. In 2021, Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin won the governorship in a state that Biden took by 10 points the year before.
Trump, meanwhile, hasn’t won an election since 2016. Logically, and as Republicans try to woo a national electorate in 2024, there are better choices than Trump. But the former president retains an emotional hold over the party grassroots that will decide the nominee. And Tuesday’s launch, and the immediate aftermath, will offer early clues over whether the staggering resilience to scandals that would have doomed ordinary political careers is beginning to fade.