Democrats were projected to take control of the House late Tuesday and pick up some governorships, but Republicans were poised to expand their majority in the Senate, delivering a split verdict in the first national referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency.
The most expensive and consequential midterm elections in modern times came to a dramatic finish that underscored the nation’s deep polarization, but fell short of delivering a sweeping repudiation of Trump that Democrats had hoped would put an exclamation point on the “resistance” movement.
Trump’s racially charged warnings about illegal immigrants and demonization of Democrats appeared to mobilize enough Republican voters to withstand the “blue wave” the party once feared and give the GOP victories in at least three key Senate races — in Indiana, North Dakota and Texas. The president proclaimed the election’s outcome a “tremendous success.”
But Democrats — propelled by outsize support in the nation’s suburbs, and from women and minority voters especially — notched victories in states that just two years ago helped Trump win the presidency. They performed well across much of the upper Midwest and even in ruby-red Kansas, where Laura Kelly was elected governor over the president’s handpicked candidate, Kris Kobach.
And in West Virginia — where Trump is wildly popular and campaigned heavily for Republicans — the reelection of Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III delivered a personal blow to the president.
Early returns showed Democrats poised to pick up the 23 House seats they needed to gain a foothold in Congress from which to counter Trump. With power in Washington divided, House Democrats are likely to try to block the president’s agenda and use their subpoena power to investigate him and his administration.
“Thanks to you, tomorrow will be a new day in America,” said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi(Calif.), who is poised to reclaim the speaker’s gavel she lost eight years ago.
The Democratic victory, she said, “is about restoring the Constitution’s checks and balances to the Trump administration,” and a check on Senate Republicans.
But Democrats were disappointed elsewhere. Sen. Joe Donnelly lost his bid for reelection in Indiana, and Republican Marsha Blackburn won the open Senate seat in Tennessee, a race that Democrats had hoped would slide into their column. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp was defeated in North Dakota, while Sen. Bill Nelson’s reelection in Florida and Sen. Claire McCaskill’s in Missouri appeared in doubt.
Two of the liberal movement’s greatest hopes, Democrats Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, struggled to overcome some of the most overt racial attacks since the civil rights era and make history as the first black governors in Georgia and Florida, respectively. Gillum conceded to Republican Ron DeSantis, a Trump ally.
“We have a choice to make tomorrow morning: Are we going to wake up and bask in sorrow and defeat?” Gillum said in his concession speech. “Or are we going to get up and fight for the things we believe in and say that we deserve our seat at the table?”
Another Democratic star, Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, lost his spirited challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz (R) despite raising record sums of money and attracting grass-roots support throughout the country.
“All the money in the world was no match for the good people of Texas and the hardworking men and women across our state,” Cruz said in his victory speech.
Republicans flipped at least one House seat held by a Democrat: in a working-class district in Minnesota’s “Iron Range,” Republican Pete Stauber won a seat held by a retiring Democrat.
Tuesday’s results were set to transform the House, not only in partisan makeup but also in gender, age and ethnicity. The night marked a series of firsts: Ilhan Omar in Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan will become the first Muslim women in the House. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 29-year-old from New York, became the youngest woman elected to Congress.
They were part of a wave of female candidates on the Democratic side, including Jennifer Wexton, who easily unseated Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) in a closely watched race in Northern Virginia, and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who narrowly defeated Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R) in South Florida.
Jared Polis (D) in Colorado became the first openly gay man elected governor, while Democrat Janet Mills was on course to become the first female governor of Maine and Republican Kristi L. Noem was narrowly ahead in her attempt to become the first female governor of South Dakota.
Rep. Mia Love, who was the sole black Republican woman in Congress, was trailing in Utah to Democrat Ben McAdams. Republicans were hoping that Young Kim, a Korean American woman, would win her California race to give the party some additional diversity.
Democrats won several of the Republican-held districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, providing the backbone of their efforts to win the House majority. And Democratic House challengers proved formidable in suburbs nationwide, winning the seats of Reps. Mike Coffman (R) in suburban Denver and Kevin Yoder (R) in the Kansas City suburbs, among others.
But the Democratic momentum was not strong enough to carry some prized House recruits over the finish line. Former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, who attracted significant outside funding and was considered a rising star, lost to Rep. Andy Barr (R) in Kentucky.
One of the few Republicans who did not campaign as a Trump acolyte — Mitt Romney — handily won his race for the open Senate seat in Utah, marking a return to the national stage for the party’s 2012 presidential nominee. After the death of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and the retirements of Sens. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.), Romney is poised to become the leading Republican counterweight to Trump in the Senate, if he chooses to take on that role.
The midterm elections had the energy of a presidential contest in their closing days, with Trump making himself the central figure and hoping to buck the historical trend of major losses for the president’s party in the first midterm vote.
In an all-out push to preserve Republican congressional majorities, Trump dashed from one red state to the next, urging his legions of supporters that he calls “the silent majority” to rush to the polls as if he were on the ballot.
In some ways, the outcome was eerily similar to that of 2016, with late polls overestimating the Democratic advantage in enthusiasm and Republicans showing unanticipated resilience thanks in part to Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and focus on nativist themes.
Racial tensions that had been simmering beneath the surface for years came to a boil in the final weeks of the campaign. Robo-calls in Georgia featured a voice impersonating Oprah Winfrey and calling Abrams “a poor man’s Aunt Jemima.” In Florida, robo-calls mimicked Gillum as jungle sounds and chimpanzee noises were heard in the background.
Trump called Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, “not equipped” and Abrams, a leader in the state legislature, “not qualified” to be governors. And Monday, all the major television networks rejected a Trump campaign advertisement about immigration, calling it offensive.
The racial overtones put that explosive form of politics on the ballot, with major stakes for Republicans. The party of Lincoln is now overwhelmingly white, while Democrats have a much more multiethnic coalition that represents the direction the country’s demographics are heading.
Trump closed the campaign on an exceptionally dark note, stoking long-standing national divides on race and culture and painting an apocalyptic and misleading vision of America under Democratic control as he barnstormed key Senate battlegrounds.
Rather than center his closing argument on the country’s robust economic growth, Trump elected to highlight divisive nativist themes in a strategic gamble to energize his conservative base voters.
Because of geographic fate, Democrats always faced an uphill climb in winning the two seats they needed to reclaim the Senate majority. A third of the nation’s senators were up for reelection, including 10 Democratic incumbents running in states that Trump carried in 2016, many of them overwhelmingly. This year’s map gave Republicans the clear advantage of running in conservative states where they had won for decades.
An outlier was Manchin, who secured reelection in West Virginia, which Trump won by 42 percentage points in 2016. He was helped by the independent profile he had cultivated back home, having previously served as governor and sometimes crossing the aisle to vote with Republicans. Manchin was the lone Democrat to vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh last month.
In Ohio, another state Trump carried two years ago, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) cruised to reelection and cast his victory as a road map for Democrats to reclaim the industrial Midwest.
“We will never give up the hallowed ground of patriotism to the extremists,” Brown said in a victory speech. “We will show America how we celebrate organized labor and all workers — the waitress in Dayton, the office worker in Toledo, the nurse in Columbus, the mineworker in Coshocton. This is the message coming out of Ohio in 2018, and that is the blueprint for our nation in 2020.”
In two other Midwestern states that Trump won — Wisconsin and Michigan — Democrats were faring better than they did in 2016. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) was reelected in Wisconsin, while early returns showed Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) leading in Michigan.
Democrat Gretchen Whitmer won the governorship in Michigan, while in Wisconsin Democrat Tony Evers was running ahead of Gov. Scott Walker, once a Republican star who ran for president in 2016.
In traditionally Democratic New Jersey, Sen. Robert Menendez’s reelection had appeared in jeopardy in recent weeks as national Democrats rushed to spend millions of dollars to prop him up. Republicans have not won a Senate race there in 46 years, and New Jersey held to its traditions as Menendez fended off a GOP challenge.
Midterm elections traditionally are referendums on the party in power, but Trump sought to ensure that this one would be a referendum on his presidency. He told crowds to vote as if he were atop the ballot, warning that his agenda and political movement were at risk, and he made himself the central force with an overwhelming cascade of speeches, media interviews and tweets.
The president returned to his 2016 campaign playbook, delivering fiery speeches that drew massive and enthusiastic crowds but contained a breathtaking barrage of falsehoods, invective and demagoguery.
Trump, who described himself in the closing weeks as a “nationalist,” made the caravan of Central American migrants seeking asylum in the United States a dominant theme. At his mega-rallies, he vilified illegal immigrants and warned without evidence that the migrant caravan represented an invasion of criminals, drug dealers and murderers intent on doing harm should they cross the border. And he mobilized the military to reinforce his campaign message, deploying 15,000 U.S. troops to stand guard at the border in what former military leaders denounced as a political stunt.
On the eve of the election, Trump made a rare admission that his rhetoric may have gone too far. “I would like to have a much softer tone,” he said Monday in an interview with WJLA, the Washington-area ABC affiliate. Referring to his first two years in office, he continued: “I feel, to a certain extent, I have no choice. But maybe I do. And maybe I could’ve been softer from that standpoint.”
In the campaign’s home stretch, the Democrats seized on Trump’s tribalism to make the election a referendum not only on the president’s job performance or health care and other policy priorities, but also a clarifying choice for the nation.
Former president Barack Obama emerged out of the political wilderness this fall to counter his successor in an extraordinarily piercing manner. “The character of this country is on the ballot,” Obama declared at his rallies with Democratic candidates.