U.S. President Joe Biden, who declared optimism about the midterm elections this week despite opinion polls predicting Republican wins, had reason to feel vindicated on Wednesday morning even though his Democrats could still lose control of Congress.
Republicans may eke out a narrow majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate was still up for grabs with key races in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada undecided.
But that was all part of better-than-expected news for the White House.
Democrats bucked dire forecasts in national races, clinched governors' races in states seen as crucial to the next election in 2024, and passed left-leaning measures like codifying abortion rights in Michigan.
"Amazing," said one stunned Biden aide as results trickled in at the White House overnight.
The president is expected to speak on Wednesday, though his public schedule around midday had not yet listed an event.
Then-President Donald Trump saw his fellow Republicans lose 40 House seats in the 2018 midterms, and then-President Barack Obama's Democrats lost more than 60 seats in 2010 in what he described at the time as a "shellacking."
Biden called three dozen Democrats who won their races to congratulate them, including Florida's Maxwell Alejandro Frost, who at 25 became the first member of "Gen Z," those born after the mid-1990s, to join Congress. Aides and allies believe Biden's efforts to cast the election in terms of securing abortion rights, stopping right-wing political extremism and protecting healthcare staved off a Republican "wave."
Republicans are likely to have big enough gains to take the House, meaning they could block Biden's promise to legalize abortion rights nationwide or ban the sale of assault weapons, and launch possibly damaging investigations into his administration and family.
While Republicans cited high inflation and crime as top voting issues, Democrats said they were more motivated by abortion rights and gun violence, exit polls show.
Democratic strategist Ben LaBolt, a former spokesperson for Obama, said Republicans' focus on potential investigations and takedowns was not in touch with governing priorities favored by U.S. voters.
"It's not about addressing, at a substantive level, any of the top issues facing the American people," he said. "And that really provides an opening for Democrats."
PREPARING FOR GOP CONTROL
White House advisers have begun preparations for a host of Republican investigations expected to be launched from a Republican-controlled House and are ready to govern with a more limited toolbox of issuing executive orders.
If Biden's agenda is blocked in Congress, Biden will have veto power and the megaphone of being president to advocate for his and his party's priorities.
He has two months until the end of the year during the "lame duck" period to pass legislation while Democrats still control Congress. White House officials have said he will focus on securing government funding bills and money to combat COVID-19 as well as getting Senate confirmation for his judicial nominees.
Trump allies including U.S. Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Jim Jordan of Ohio, who both won their races easily, could have greater influence under a Republican-controlled House, and political strategists say that party could overplay its hand.
A Republican-led Congress would "be the end of his legislative agenda in any meaningful way, but it's certainly not the end of (Biden's) political fortunes," said Brendan Buck, a former adviser to Republican House Speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner.
"Republicans have a very long track record of overreach with Democratic presidents, and it's not hard to imagine that (Biden) will be able to have a very strong contrast with Congress and use that to his advantage."
Biden turns 80 this month and has faced questions about his fitness to run for a second term in 2024. The president has said he intends to run again, and Tuesday's results could bolster his cause.
Early this year, Biden, his Chief of Staff Ron Klain, and other aides worked to frame the midterms as a battle of "levelheaded" Democrats against "extreme" Republicans in league with former President Trump.
They embellished that message in June when the Supreme Court struck down the Roe v. Wade right to abortion. In a stark September speech from the birthplace of American democracy in Philadelphia, Biden said: "MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic."
Even as members of his own party declined to campaign with him, Biden stuck to his anti-extremist message, adding possible threats to long-cherished social programs like Medicare under Republican leadership.
That framing helped many Democrats like Representative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman weather bad historical odds for the party in charge during midterm elections, Biden aides and allies believe.