Americans on Tuesday cast the final ballots in U.S. midterm elections that will determine whether Democrats lose control of Congress, and with it the ability to push forward on President Joe Biden's agenda in the next two years.
The party that controls the White House typically loses seats in midterm elections, and nonpartisan forecasts suggest Tuesday's results will be no exception, as concerns about high inflation and crime outweigh the end of national abortion rights and the violence of the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol in voters' minds.
Thirty-five Senate seats and all 435 House of Representatives seats are on the ballot. Republicans are widely favored to pick up the five seats they need to control the House, while the Senate - currently split 50-50 with Democrats holding the tie-breaking vote - could come down to a quartet of toss-up races in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Georgia, and Arizona.
But even before the midterm elections were completed, the 2024 presidential election was taking shape. Former President Donald Trump on Monday night sent his strongest hint yet that he would be kicking off his third consecutive White House campaign soon, telling supporters in Ohio that he would be making a "big announcement" on Nov. 15. He did not specify what that would be, but he has been telegraphing plans to run again since shortly after losing his 2020 reelection bid to Biden.
Hundreds of supporters of Trump's false claims that his loss was the result of widespread fraud are on the ballot this year, including several seeking positions that would give them direct oversight of the 2024 presidential elections in competitive states.
More than 42 million Americans voted ahead of Election Day, either by mail or in person, according to data from the U.S. Election Project. State election officials caution that full results may not be known for days afterward as they count ballots in close races - with control of the Senate perhaps not known until a potential Dec. 6 runoff in Georgia.
A Republican-controlled House would be able to block bills addressing Democratic priorities such as abortion rights and climate change. Republicans could also initiate a showdown over the nation's debt ceiling, which could shake financial markets, and launch potentially politically damaging investigations into Biden's administration and family.
Republicans would look to use their leverage to make the 2017 individual tax cuts passed under Trump permanent, and protect corporate tax cuts that Democrats have unsuccessfully tried to reverse over the past two years.
A Republican Senate, meanwhile, would hold sway over Biden's judicial nominations, including any Supreme Court vacancy. Top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell has already hinted he might refuse to fill an open seat on the top court until after the 2024 presidential election if he returns to the majority leader's position.
Divided government would intensify the spotlight on the increasingly conservative court, which has already issued sweeping decisions erasing a nationwide right to abortion and vastly expanding gun rights, among others.
There are also 36 governorships and scores of other state-level races on the ballot, including hotly contested gubernatorial campaigns in the swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia.
Biden and former President Barack Obama, still the party's biggest luminary, have crisscrossed the country over the past week, urging supporters to vote in hopes of stemming Democrats' losses, while Trump has done the same as he lays the groundwork for another run at the presidency.
However, some Democrats in tough races have deliberately distanced themselves from the White House as Biden's popularity languishes. On Monday, the final day of campaigning, Biden headed to the politically safe turf of Democratic-leaning Maryland, rather than a swing state.
The Supreme Court's June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that had established a nationwide right to abortion, had galvanized Democratic voters around the country, temporarily raising Democrats' hopes they could defy history.
But in the closing weeks of the campaign, forecasters have grown more confident that Republicans will win a majority in the House, perhaps flipping 20 seats or more.
Despite one of the strongest job markets in memory, stubbornly rising prices have left voters dissatisfied, helped along by relentless attacks from Republicans over gas and food prices, as well as crime.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll completed on Monday showed more than two-thirds of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, with just 39% approving of the way Biden has done his job. Trump's polling is similarly low, with just 41% of respondents to a separate recent Reuters/Ipsos poll saying they viewed him favorably.
The increasingly grim prognosis has left some Democrats questioning the party's campaign message, which centered on protecting abortion rights and American democracy.
"What we've seen over the last month is political gravity begin to reassert itself," said Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst at the nonpartisan forecaster Inside Elections. "Biden never substantively improved his approval ratings from where it was in the beginning of the year. Voters care a lot about the economy, and they blame Biden for inflation."
Biden and other Democrats have sounded the alarm over a raft of Republican contenders who have either echoed or refused to contradict Trump's false claims that he lost the 2020 election due to widespread fraud.
"Democracy is literally on the ballot," Biden said on Sunday at a rally in Yonkers, New York.
The prevalence of election deniers among Republican candidates has elevated down-ballot races that typically receive little attention, including contests for secretary of state, the top election official in most states.
In swing states such as Nevada, Arizona and Michigan, the Republican nominees to head up the states' election apparatus have embraced Trump's falsehoods, raising fears among Democrats that, if they prevail, they could interfere with the 2024 presidential race.
Trump's hold on the Republican Party remains formidable. His endorsement proved a potent tool during party selection contests, and his preferred candidates prevailed in several crucial Senate primaries, despite concerns from some Republican leaders that their far-right rhetoric would be a liability in the general election.
First-time Senate candidates such as Blake Masters in Arizona, J.D. Vance in Ohio and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania have struggled at times to moderate their tone for a wider electorate, giving Democrats hope in what might otherwise have been challenging races for Biden's party.
In Georgia, Herschel Walker, a former sports star challenging incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock, has faced a raft of scandals. They include allegations he has called lies from two women who said he urged them to have abortions during past relationships - despite his uncompromising anti-abortion stance on the campaign trail.
"Winning the Senate would have been an easy thing to accomplish had the Republican Party been wiser in its selection of qualified candidates," said Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist. "They really handicapped themselves."