WASHINGTON — Joe Biden defied midterm headwinds in an improbable election Tuesday as Democrats held off a Republican "red wave" that many strategists predicted, giving the president unexpected momentum as he weighs whether to run for reelection.
Although control of both chambers was still unclear Wednesday morning, Democrats could keep control of the Senate and still have a path to keep the House, a scenario viewed as a long shot before the election amid voters' concerns about the economy and inflation.
Legislative gridlock. Possible government shutdowns. GOP investigations. Those are still in play in a possible Republican-led House. But Democrats displayed surprising strength in races throughout the country, exceeding expectations and boosting Biden on a night when most pundits anticipated a setback.
“So far there have been a few – if any – surprises breaking in the direction of Republicans whereas there have been surprises breaking in the direction of Democrats,” said Duke University professor Asher Hildebrand.
The outcome seemed to validate Biden framing the election as a battle for democracy and restoring abortion rights – a decision that was second-guessed even by fellow Democrats before Tuesday. And although the president's legislative agenda is still in jeopardy if Democrats lose the House, Republicans failed to deliver the knockout punch they wanted.
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"This was not a repudiation," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, crediting the Supreme Court's decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade for "saving Democrats from a disaster."
But elections analyst Nathan Gonzales, editor of the nonpartisan Inside Elections, tweeted that Democrats are doing well in spite of Biden, not because of him.
Biden’s approval rating – stuck in the low 40s – was so low he mostly campaigned in Democratic friendly territory in the final days as he tried to generate enthusiasm and avoid particularly embarrassing losses in blue bastions like New York.
Sill, former White House press secretary Jen Psaki, a political analyst on MSNBC, said it was supposed to be an election in which Biden lost so many seats it would be embarrassing to wake up Wednesday and be president.
“It is not going to be,” Psaki said Tuesday night, describing White House aides as "giddy and gleeful."
Biden appeared on track for perhaps the best midterm showing of any recent Democratic president. In 1994, Democrats lost 54 House seats while Bill Clinton was president and even more, 63 House seats, in 2010 under Barack Obama.
Far from a setback for the Biden presidency, the election raised more questions about a Republican Party still dominated by former President Donald Trump, who had several hand-picked candidates lose their races and held rallies in battleground states across the country.
Marc Thiessen, a Republican and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, called the election a "searing indictment of the Republican Party" considering all the disadvantages Democrats faced: 40-year high inflation, Biden's low approval ratings, a rise in migrants at the southern border and concerns about crime.
"(Voters) looked at all of that, and looked at the Republican alternative, and said, 'No, thanks,'" Thiessen said on Fox News. "The Republican Party needs to do a really deep introspection, look in the mirror right now, because this is an absolute disaster."
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Since 1994, the party that controls the White House has lost control of one or more chambers of Congress in almost every midterm election.
“It's a regular thing in American politics at this point, given how divided we are, how close each election is,” said Tevi Troy, a presidential historian at the Bipartisan Policy Center who worked in the Bush administration. .
“If the Democrats do really well – which will surprise everybody – then, boy oh boy, that will be a political earthquake," Elaine Kamarck, an expert on American electoral politics at the Brookings Institution, said last week, "because they would be winning against very powerful economic headwinds, and that rarely happens."
Biden touted the strong job market and what Democrats have done to lower prescription drug prices for seniors, forgive student loan debt and other actions to ease family budgets. But with the cost of gas and groceries still straining wallets, the president also had to acknowledge that more needs to be done.
Trying to turn the election from a referendum into a choice, Biden warned that Republicans would cut Social Security and Medicare, push for a national abortion ban and threaten democracy itself by peddling lies about election fraud.
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Republicans, meanwhile, relentlessly focused their attacks on public safety and the economy.
“Ever since the Democrats came into power, inflation has gone up, the price of food has gone up, which hurts my family," said Lorena Cardenas, 43, a stay-at-home mom from Las Vegas, Nevada.
In only one other midterm election has the drop in per capita disposable income matched the current decline, according to John Mark Hansen, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.
That was in 1946, when Democrats suffered such huge losses nobody greeted President Harry Truman as he returned from Missouri to Washington’s Union Station, Kamarck said.
“He was really considered dead meat,” she said.
And yet, Truman passed the Marshall Plan in 1947 and won a surprise victory in the 1948 presidential election after railing against a “Do Nothing Congress.”
Before Tuesday, people close to Biden insisted midterm election losses for Democrats wouldn't affect the president's reelection decision. Biden allies noted both Clinton and Obama were reelected after losing the House
Before the midterms, however, voters weren’t expressing much enthusiasm for a second bid from Biden, who turns 80 on Nov. 20.
Only 26% of voters surveyed in late October in a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll said they wanted to see Biden run again. Nearly two-thirds did not.
Jake McDonnell, a 24-year-old Democrat from Westchester, Calif., voted along party lines Tuesday but hopes Biden won't seek reelection.
“He’s just too old at that point. Just the amount of energy he has,” McDonnell said. “So having somebody who is younger is paramount."
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If Biden does run again, he may actually get a boost from having a GOP-controlled Congress, depending on how Republicans play their cards if they end up winning one or both chambers, experts said.
“There is a scenario in which losing the House, while legislatively is a profound blow to the president, can actually be beneficial to him politically, in the long term as he runs for reelection,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
It also doesn't have to spell the end of the rest of Biden's first term, said Ruth Bloch Rubin, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.
"But it will certainly require some readjusting in terms of strategy and legislative ambition," she added.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined last week to name any issue on which Democrats and Republicans might work together in a divided government.
Biden, however, didn’t hold back when warning party donors of the consequences of a bad night for Democrats.
“If we lose the House and Senate it’s going to be a horrible two years,” Biden said at a fundraiser reception in Chicago Friday. “The good news is that I’ll have the veto pen.”
Campaigning with Biden in Philadelphia Saturday, Obama said progress on immigration, gun safety and climate change got a lot harder, or just ground to a halt, after Democrats lost the House in his first midterm election and the Senate in his second.
“Midterms are no joke!” Obama said. “A president can’t do stuff alone.”
One of the many things presidents can’t do alone is pass a budget or raise the limit on how much the government can borrow. Some Republicans want to force concessions from Biden on spending and policy issues in exchange for not allowing the government to default on its debt. They could make similar demands on spending bills needed to keep the government funded if they control the House or Senate.
“I don’t believe that anybody wants to shut down the government, but the debt limit and the spending fights provide leverage for Republicans to push for reforms that we’ve campaigned on to address the major issues and challenges of the day,” U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., leader of an influential group of House conservatives, recently told the Washington Post. “And hopefully President Biden would be willing to come to the table and be willing to negotiate with Republicans.”
Although past attempts at government shutdowns have not been effective for Republicans, Troy said, GOP leaders may not be able to convince their most combative members not to try it again.
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If Republicans win the House, the administration will be busy responding to GOP investigations.
Republicans have promised they would use their subpoena power to probe the administration’s handling of the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the origins of the coronavirus and how the administration has dealt with parents and school boards.
“These are just a few of the items that we'll be looking at,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy told Fox News last week.
They could also investigate Biden’s son Hunter over his financial dealings and compliance with tax laws. Some may push for impeachment of Biden himself or of cabinet members.
“I hope that they don’t go into a tit-for-tat type thing,’’ said James Chancellor, 62, a Republican from Westchester, Calif. “I think it’s time for us to come together as a country instead of all this infighting that’s going on.’’
In Las Vegas, Jonathan Copeland, 55, said he supports Biden generally but doesn’t care for him. He voted primarily to support Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., in a race that could determine control of the Senate.
Copeland, a Black man who works in sales, worries that Republican control would mean further erosion of abortion rights, which he supports.
"What politician has the right to tell a woman what to do?" he said.
Contributing: Josh Peter and Trevor Hughes.
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