(CN) — The nation’s 118th Congress remains undefined on the morning after Tuesday’s midterm elections, but the immediate results were clear in at least one respect: there won’t be a GOP supermajority.
While the Republican Party appears on track to wrest control of the House of Representatives, other conservative candidates for Congress and gubernatorial races largely underperformed. It was a surprising and somewhat embarrassing result for the Republicans, who failed to fully capitalize on President Joe Biden’s low approval rating at a time of contentious domestic issues not limited to persistent inflation, high gas prices, a porous border policy, a mental health crisis, cities awash in fentanyl and rising violent crime, soaring mortgage rates and a depleted housing stock.
And it was seemingly another rebuke of former President Donald Trump, who had likely hoped to use significant Republican gains in the midterms as a catalyst to launch his own reelection campaign as early as next week. Instead, candidates who embraced Trump’s "big lie" about the 2020 election were widely defeated, while those Republican candidates who did triumph Tuesday largely did so by distancing themselves from the former president.
On the other hand, the election wasn’t an endorsement of Biden either. A Republican-controlled House will likely stonewall any of his legislative priorities and the Democratic Party will ultimately begin the next term weaker than before.
“The Republicans most surely underperformed … I would even call it a political earthquake,” Jeffrey Bloodworth, professor of history at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, said in an interview.
Bloodworth said signs of Trump’s waning influence were evident in the weeks preceding the election, but polls failed to capture how independent voters would break toward the Democratic Party.
“This should have been a Republican romp last night,” he said. “Instead, that was the best first midterm for a Democratic president since John Kennedy, which happened in the shadow of the Cuban missile crisis. And it’s not because Democrats are popular.”
Bloodworth said Democratic and independent voters were likely energized by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization in June that overturned the federal right to abortion, but Republicans likely suffered because of a lack of quality candidates.
Michael Bitzer, chair of the politics department at Catawba College in North Carolina, said candidates who champion the fringes of their parties may be losing their appeal.
“Candidate quality used to matter,” Bitzer said last week. “Then we became a polarized political environment and now party identification and party loyalty is pretty much all that matters. It’s all about which tribe you belong to and your loyalty to that tribe.”
If there was a bellwether race on the East Coast Tuesday, it was Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. There, two-term incumbent Democratic U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger, whose previous campaigns were won by margins of less than 2%, was facing a third test from a Republican challenger.
In 2018, Spanberger was a 38-year-old mother of three and former CIA agent when she defeated a male Tea Party incumbent. Two years later she held onto the seat amid a challenge from a male state legislator, but the district was redrawn after the 2020 census to reflect new demographics and this year it included a handful of more conservative towns outside the Beltway.
Spanberger was challenged by Yesli Vega, a former cop and county supervisor with two young children of her own and the endorsements of key Republicans including former President Donald Trump. Regardless, the incumbent won by nearly 4% of the vote, her largest margin of victory so far.