With the next two years of his presidency on the line and Congress in the balance, Joe Biden picked up the phone on Tuesday night and began placing a series of congratulatory calls.
At first, the president offered well-wishes to candidates widely expected to win their races, like Wes Moore, who soundly defeated his far-right opponent to become Maryland’s first Black governor. But soon the president was congratulating Democrats in more competitive contests, like the Virginia congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, whose political fate was seen as a bellwether of Republicans’ fortunes. He ended what one prominent forecaster declared “the craziest election night I’ve ever seen” with an early morning text to Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, who defeated the celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz in one of the most fiercely contested Senate races that had become a proxy battle between Biden and Donald Trump.
By Wednesday afternoon, control of Congress hung in the balance. But it was clear that the president’s party had defied the gloomiest predictions and Biden, hobbled by economic discontent and dismal approval ratings, had nevertheless avoided the devastating political rebuke his predecessors suffered in past midterms.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Biden reveled in his party’s successes: “While the press and the pundits were predicting a giant red wave – it didn’t happen.”
Despite Democrats’ rosier-than-anticipated outlook, Republican control of one or both chambers of Congress would upend the trajectory of his presidency, imperiling his legislative agenda and swamping his administration with investigations. Biden, who turns 80 this month, also faces a looming decision about whether he should stand for re-election in 2024, as Trump teases a presidential bid announcement for later this month.
The president insisted on Wednesday that he intends to run again and expected to make a formal decision early next year. Asked if he had a message to the majority of Americans who do not want him to run again, Biden replied: “Watch me.”
Trump may not be the only Republican Biden has to worry about in 2024. The Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, long seen as a more disciplined, conservative alternative to Trump, declared victory before a crowd chanting “two more years”.
It could take several more days, and possibly weeks, for full results to be known, but a mixed portrait was beginning to emerge. In battlegrounds across the industrial midwest, Democrats beat back a predicted “red wave”, even as Republicans stormed to victory in Florida and Ohio. Several critical Senate races were too close to call in several key states, including Georgia, where the race will go to a runoff election in December that could determine the majority as it did two years ago.
In the district-by-district fight for 435 House seats, Democrats, powered by the issue of abortion rights, held on in parts of suburban Virginia, Kansas and Michigan, where voters enshrined reproductive freedom in its constitution.
Republicans, meanwhile, snatched key seats in deep blue New York, toppling the Democratic congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, chair of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, in a stunning defeat that may help deliver them a narrow majority in the chamber.
There were losses that stung Democrats. Stacey Abrams, a Democratic star, failed to oust Georgia Republican Brian Kemp in a rematch of their bitter 2018 contest. A strong Republican showing in Texas chilled Democratic hopes of turning Texas blue. And even more worrying for the party’s long-term national prospects, Republicans’ advantage in the House appeared due in no small part to a aggressive partisan attempts to redraw election districts to favor their own candidates after the 2020 census.
Narrow control of the House could embolden the increasingly pro-Trump wing of the Republican conference, which has demanded a slew of investigations into Biden administration officials and his family.
Some have threatened to impeach the president or his top officials. And Republican leaders have already made clear they plan to use must-pass spending bills as leverage to extract legislative concessions, promising political brinkmanship that could lead to a government shutdown or even a risky debt default.
Biden has mocked Republicans for failing to offer a serious governing agenda, while charging that their plans would endanger popular programs like social security and Medicare. Republicans in turn blamed Biden’s policies for deepening inflation and causing chaos at the US-Mexico border.
The Senate, currently divided 50-50 with Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote, remained within reach for Democrats on Wednesday, though a result may not be known until after the Georgia runoff next month. With a Democratic Senate majority, Biden could confirm cabinet officials, ambassadors and judges, including a supreme court justice should a vacancy arise. If Republicans win, they could hold up or block Biden’s judicial nominees and federal appointments.
It was no longer possible for Democrats to notch the two-seat majority in the upper chamber: Biden had promised to codify Roe if voters elected two more senators willing to eliminate the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass most legislation. Even so, making good on the promise likely required a Democratic House anyway.
Speaking in Chicago last week, Biden was blunt about what Republican majorities would mean for his ability to govern.
“If we lose the House and Senate,” he told Democratic donors in Chicago, “it’s going to be a horrible two years.”
But on Wednesday, Biden vowed to work with Republican leaders to find common ground. And he remained optimistic that he could still build on his legislative agenda, which he predicted would become even more popular in the coming months as transportation projects get underway and new policies take effect, such as one lowering prescription drug costs.
Biden also argued that the elections sent “a clear and unmistakable message” that Americans wanted to preserve America’s system of government, which he warned was under threat from the forces loyal to Trump who continue to deny the results of the 2020 election while amplifying lies and conspiracies about voter fraud.
“It was a good day for democracy and I think a good day for America,” Biden said of the election outcome. “Our democracy’s been tested in recent years but with our votes the American people have spoken and proved again that democracy is who we are.”