U.S. voters give Biden's Democrats new life — and a credible challenge for Trump

WASHINGTON — Call it a November surprise.

Democrats were basking in a midterm defeat that felt like a big win Wednesday after an electoral all-nighter that remained on track to buck the modern-day U.S. trend of voters punishing the party in the White House.

President Joe Biden was making phone calls and texting congratulations to a number of Democratic winners and still-to-be-declared leaders before an afternoon news conference, a victory lap few would have predicted 24 hours earlier.

"That is our spirit: ordinary folks who accomplished extraordinary things while facing seemingly impossible odds," said newly re-elected Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

"Michigan's future is bright, and we're about to step on the accelerator."

The odds of Democrats emerging from the 2022 midterms in triumph weren't exactly impossible, but they were certainly long, given Biden's unpopularity and the winds of economic uncertainty that were filling Republican sails.

Whitmer's win was one of the few outcomes with a direct impact on Canada: the Democrat and staunch Biden ally has been — and will remain — the driving force behind the effort to shut down Canada's cross-border Line 5 pipeline.

Whitmer narrowly bested Republican challenger Tudor Dixon, a Donald Trump-endorsed steel industry insider-turned-conservative commentator, who tried to use Canada's defence of Line 5 against her Democratic rival.

Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, "the most radical environmentalist in the entire world," is opposed to shutting down the pipeline, Dixon said during her debate with Whitmer last month.

But as the end grew nearer — it was still not clear at midday Wednesday how the balance of power on Capitol Hill would shake out — what was obvious to most political experts was that the Republicans had squandered a golden opportunity.

"In recent memory, the Republican performance last night was the most epic example I can think of, of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory," said Mac McCorkle, a public policy professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

"It's almost inexplicable that the Republicans did not do better, except for maybe one word: Trump."

Indeed, a number of Trump-endorsed Senate candidates in key battleground states went down to defeat, notably in Pennsylvania, where TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz conceded defeat to John Fetterman, the state's hoodie-clad lieutenant governor.

Others prevailed, however, including venture capitalist and "Hillbilly Elegy" author J.D. Vance in Ohio and congressman Ted Budd in North Carolina. In Nevada, Adam Laxalt was nursing a three-point lead over incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.

It took until mid-afternoon eastern time Wednesday for Republican Sen. Ron Johnson to be declared the winner in Wisconsin, edging out up-and-comer Mandela Barnes, another state lieutenant governor, by fewer than 30,000 votes.

That left the GOP just two seats away from wresting control of the Senate from the Democrats, with only Nevada, Arizona and Georgia still to be settled.

In the latter case, it will be a while.

Controversial former NFL star Herschel Walker, a close friend of Trump's, is narrowly trailing incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock. But the leader failed to reach the 50 per cent vote threshold, sending the pair to a Dec. 6 run-off.

But perhaps the worst news of all for Trump was in his beloved state of Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis romped to a 20-point win over Democratic rival Charlie Crist — a substantial platform from which to launch a bid for the Republican nomination in 2024.

Exit polls suggested that as many as three in 10 voters cast their ballots in House races "as an expression of opposition to Donald Trump," said Asher Hildebrand, one of McCorkle's colleagues at Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy.

"That, combined with Ron DeSantis's very strong showing in the Florida governor's race, is probably going to increase pressure among Republican elites to find another standard-bearer in 2024."

Florida was just one of 506 gubernatorial, House and Senate races that came to fruition Tuesday in a midterm showdown that pollsters and pundits had expected to be a bruising indictment of Biden's administration.

Hildebrand acknowledged being one of the pundits who initially questioned the Democratic strategy of pivoting late in the race to portray many of the Republican candidates as election deniers who would pose a threat to American democracy.

In the end, it's a strategy that appears to have paid off, he said.

"President Biden's decision to campaign on the issue, which was very much criticized by me at the time, was actually smart politics," Hildebrand said. "Generic appeals to the importance of democracy, and the importance of protecting it, were effective with voters."

Not all of them went down to defeat, however.

In Arizona, former news anchor Kari Lake, who has leaned heavily into Trump's brand of scorched-earth, media-bashing politics, seized on reports of faulty voting machines to resurrect the spectre of imagined electoral fraud.

Election officials in the state insisted that the technical problems, which affected about 20 per cent of the machines in populous Maricopa County, merely delayed the counting process and did not prevent anyone from casting a ballot.

But that didn't stop Lake from spoiling for a fight.

"When we win, first line of action is to restore honesty to Arizona elections," Lake told supporters as she trailed Democrat Katie Hobbs, the state's top election official, by a margin of 12 percentage points with half of the polls reporting.

"When we win — and I think it will be within hours — we will declare victory and we will get to work turning this around — no more incompetency and no more corruption in Arizona elections."

Since then, Lake has indeed closed the gap with Hobbs, pulling to within less than 12,000 votes with two-thirds of polls reporting, a margin of less than a single percentage point.

If the Republicans take control of the House, presumptive Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy will be presiding over a smaller caucus than he might have hoped, giving a taller pedestal to some of the party's more extremist elements.

That's sure to complicate life in Congress, where Republicans have already vowed to make things as difficult for Biden over the next two years as Democrats did for Trump.

And that perception of gridlock and chaos may, in the end, be the part of the midterms that impacts Canada the most, said Eric Miller, president of the D.C.-based Rideau Potomac Strategy Group.

"Even if the blowout is not as big as one thought it would be, you now have a situation where the endless commentary in Canada — how the U.S. is heading for dissolution, or a civil war, or can't be trusted, and so on — is only going to get amplified," Miller said.

"The system begins to not function the way it should, there is no ability to deal with the big picture problems, there's no ability to pursue serious bilateral relationships."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9. 2022.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press