Washington, DC – The stars appeared aligned for Republicans. With economic uncertainty, a seemingly unpopular president from the opposite party in the White House, and historic trends on their side, they were hoping to deliver a knockout punch to their Democratic rivals in the United States midterm elections.

But as Americans woke up on Wednesday morning, it seemed like the much-anticipated “red wave” changed course and never made landfall.

A Democratic push to protect abortion rights and Republicans’ move to the far right with the nomination of several Donald Trump-backed conspiracy theorists and election deniers helped change Democrats’ fortune, analysts say.

David Cohen, a political science professor at The University of Akron in Ohio, said the Supreme Court’s ruling in June that ended the constitutional right to abortion in the US was an “energising moment” for Democrats.

“It was one of the most important motivating issues to get Democrats out to the polls,” Cohen told Al Jazeera. “I think also the worry from many Americans about the threats to democracy – that issue was not looked at enough by prognosticators.”

President Joe Biden had stressed that “democracy is literally on the ballot” as he warned ahead of election day on Tuesday that candidates who question the integrity of elections posed a danger to the US system.

While results are still coming in and the Republican Party may well gain control of the House of Representatives, the Senate, or both, it became clear in the early hours of Wednesday morning that Democrats had outperformed expectations.

“Certainly by historic standards, this is really an incredible night for the Democrats. There has not been a majority party in the White House and in the Congress that has done so well in the midterms,” Lara Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University, told Al Jazeera in a television interview.

“Even if the Democrats lose the House, and they appear to be on track to do that, [Republican] Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s majority would be very narrow – and that would be a win for the Democrats.”

Defying historic trends

In US midterms, the party in control of the White House usually suffers major losses in Congress.

Former President Trump lost dozens of seats in the House in 2018. Barack Obama lost large majorities in both chambers of Congress in 2010, prompting him to describe the vote as a “shellacking”. George W Bush and Bill Clinton also lost control of the House and the Senate in midterms.

“In a normal midterm election, you see a seating chair switch of 31 seats – and that’s been more pronounced in presidents’ first midterm elections when voters who had turned out for the president in a prior general election tend to sit out the midterms,” said Robinson Woodward-Burns, assistant professor of political science at Howard University.

But this year, losses for Biden’s Democratic Party will be modest at best – and Democrats could end up with gains when all the votes are counted.

The party flipped a Senate seat in Pennsylvania in one of the most closely watched races in the country, and Democratic Governors Gretchen Whitmer and Tony Evers won re-election in the swing states of Michigan and Wisconsin, respectively.

Democrats also avoided major upsets in their coastal strongholds.

Senate races in Colorado and New Hampshire that were expected to be competitive ended up being easy wins for Democratic incumbents. And in the House, many Democratic candidates in swing districts survived, and the party was actually able to flip a couple of Republican-held districts.

John fetterman
Democrat John Fetterman defeated Republican Mehmet Oz in a Pennsylvania Senate race considered one of the most important contests in the midterms [Gene J Puskar/AP Photo]

Abortion was focal to many Democratic campaigns, with liberal candidates promising to protect the right to the procedure and painting their Republican opponents as “extremists” who want the government to dictate to women what to do with their bodies.

A conservative majority on the US Supreme Court – including three Trump appointees – had revoked the constitutional right to the procedure in June, fuelling outrage from women’s rights groups. Biden promised to pass a federal law to codify abortion rights as part of his pitch to voters.

On Tuesday, the states of California, Michigan and Vermont passed ballot proposals to enshrine abortion protections into their laws. And voters in deeply conservative Kentucky rejected a measure that would have amended the state’s constitution to say there was no right to the procedure.

While the defeat of the referendum will have no immediate effect on the law in Kentucky, which has an abortion ban in place, it showed that even some conservatives who vote Republican do not back government restrictions on reproductive rights.

Election deniers

Republicans also did not do themselves any favours by nominating far-right candidates for key races, including in swing states, according to analysts. Trump-backed candidates who question the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential elections faltered across the map.

In Pennsylvania, a state that Biden won by a little more than 1 percent two years ago, far-right Republican candidate for governor, Doug Mastriano, lost by more than 13 percentage points to Democrat Josh Shapiro.

In Michigan, election denier Kristina Karamo was trailing incumbent Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson by a similar margin with 87 percent of the votes counted by Wednesday afternoon.

Voters sent a message on Tuesday that “Americans are really not enthusiastic about extremists of either party”, said Brown.

For his part, Cohen said “candidate quality” undermined Republicans’ chances of winning across the map, citing several races where GOP hopefuls did not do as well as expected.

“Some of the alarming rhetoric we heard on the Republican side, I think really nailed home the message that American democracy is not a sure thing, and that there were many candidates on the ballot that would actively undermine the American political system,” Cohen said.

Beyond warning of what they call Republican extremism, Democrats also tried to tout their own record. For all his perceived unpopularity, Biden has been talking up his economic policies, including a bipartisan infrastructure bill he signed into law last year and the more recent Inflation Reduction Act that freed up billions in funding to combat climate change.

Moreover, the president’s decision to forgive up to $20,000 in student debt may have helped mobilise young voters who appear to have played a major role in the Democrats’ better-than-expected performance.

“The youth vote is overwhelmingly Democratic,” Cohen told Al Jazeera. “And I think they helped put Democrats over the top in a number of races.”

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