Election Day was supposed to be a bloodbath for Democrats. The polls said it. History said it. Republicans said it over and over again. Even the White House seemed to be setting expectations for a likely GOP blowout.
And yet, as polls closed across the country, the presumptive red wave did not come crashing down with the force and electoral fury many predicted it would. Instead, in crucial race after race, Democrats appeared to largely hold their line, mitigating a round of early — and decisive — Republican wins in Florida with a series of unexpectedly strong showings in key races that would, in a true red wave, have been lost causes for the party in power. "The mood among House Republicans has quickly soured as they watch their chances for winning back the majority with large margins deteriorate," The Washington Post's congressional reporter Marianna Sotomayor shared early Wednesday.
Indeed, while several crucial contests remain too close to call as of Wednesday morning, the very fact that they haven't yet been settled is a sign of just how surprisingly overconfident the predictions of a sweeping conservative majority in at least one, if not both chambers of Congress, ultimately seem to be.
With some races still undecided, and likely headed for runoff elections in the coming weeks, here's what you need to know about why the red wave failed to fully form — and what that might mean for former President Donald Trump on the cusp of his presidential campaign announcement:
Trump's gamble didn't pay off
Though Trump remains the central animating force within the GOP, the former president's down-ticket potency is decidedly less ironclad after Tuesday night. His handpicked candidates for Senate races — who, like Trump, were "inexperienced" politically and relied heavily on their personal celebrity — have underperformed compared to other Republicans in their state, as well as against Trump's own electoral standards from two years ago. Indeed, Trump "has now presided over two disastrous midterm elections," David Plouffe, former President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign manager, told the MSNBC anchors on election night.
In Georgia, former NFL star Herschel Walker appears headed for a runoff against incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock, even as his fellow Republican, Gov. Brian Kemp, easily defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams shortly after polls closed. So, too, in Pennsylvania, where Dr. Mehmet Oz trailed Democrat John Fetterman despite a rancorous frontal attack from the Trump camp over Fetterman's health and ability to serve. In both those races, the GOP candidates' relative weakness within a macro-environment ostensibly in their favor is as much a statement of Republicans "flawed" candidates as it is a sign that Trump's clout in pushing his preferred candidates through a grueling primary may be a broader liability in the general election, The Washington Post reports: "It's abundantly clear Republicans would've had a better shot with a better candidate."
Even in Ohio, where Trump-backed Senate candidate J.D. Vance edged out a victory over Democrat Tim Ryan, congressional races featuring more flamboyant MAGA candidates ended with crucial Democrat wins that will help blunt any possible GOP House majority.
Notably, the one unambiguous Republican victory on election night came in a state where Trump had personally targeted the engineer of the sizable conservative gains: Florida. There, the groundwork laid by incumbent Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) helped GOP candidates in both Senate and congressional races sail easily to decisive wins. DeSantis himself dramatically outperformed Trump's own voting margins as he cruised to another term in office, definitively moving Florida out of the "swing state" category it had occupied over the past several decades.
To the extent that Trump has remolded the GOP in his own image, party insiders will surely be looking to DeSantis as a model for how to win elections as attention shifts from toward 2024. Or more. As Rolling Stone editor-in-chief Noah Shachtman mused in a tweet, "I never really took seriously the idea that DeSantis could beat Trump … until tonight."
GOP messaging was off
In the final stretch of midterm campaigning, Republicans increasingly turned to a reliable conservative narrative with which to attack their opponents: rampant crime, and the Democrats' enabling thereof. And while some Democratic candidates — notably, Ohio Senate hopeful Tim Ryan — tacked to the center in an effort to appease the premise of these attacks, the broader voting public may not have been quite as receptive as Republicans had hoped.
Instead, inflation and abortion reportedly topped voters' lists of concerns, "edging out crime despite Republicans' hammering the issue," NBC reports. While momentum had swung toward Democrats in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision that nullified Roe v Wade, it remained an open question whether that boost would continue through the summer and into Election Day itself. That was resolved when polls closed on Tuesday, as voters — including, crucially, independents — listed abortion access as a significant factor in their choice of candidates. "Abortion mattered so, so much more in this election than pundits and pollsters understood," Democratic communications strategist Sawyer Hackett tweeted.
It's not just who you vote for — it's how you vote for them
For the past two years, Republicans have focused on voting methodology, fueled in no small part by former President Donald Trump's conspiratorial insistence of a "stolen election" in 2020. As such, one frequent subject of attack from Republicans has been mail-in voting, which has been characterized as insecure and vulnerable to manipulation by Trump and his allies. Democrats, meanwhile, have embraced mail-in voting as the valid, secure form of casting ballots that election officials across the country confirm it is.
As the overall share of voters using mail-in ballots has increased over time, Republican efforts to vilify the practice have created a dynamic in which Democrats can run up enormous margins before Election Day itself, leaving those Republicans conditioned to distrust all non-in-person methods with fewer opportunities and avenues to vote, thereby potentially depressing the GOP's overall turnout. In Arizona, where the vast majority of voters cast their ballot by mail, Republican efforts to discredit the practice collided with the realities of Election Day, when a mechanical glitch in the state's crucial Maricopa County voting machines prompted some Republicans to demand polls remain open for hours after their scheduled closing time — a request denied by a County Superior Court judge.
With the contest between Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly and Republican Blake Masters a virtual toss-up in the days leading up to election day, the GOP's focus on limiting their own voting capacity could very well play a decisive role in determining who ultimately comes out on top.