Interviews with more than 70 current and former officials show the outside forces — and miscalculations and infighting — that led to an improbable, still-undecided election.
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Defying historical precedent, control of Congress remains too close to call days after the midterm elections.
Late one mid-September evening, the leaders of the House Democratic campaign arm were in the middle of a marathon meeting, grappling with an increasingly hostile midterm landscape. Two choices were on the table: a more defensive posture to limit their losses in the face of a potential red wave or a more aggressive approach in hopes of saving their paper-thin majority.
Leftover Chinese food was strewn about. The hour approached midnight. The decision was made. They would go all in for the majority — the pundits, polling and punishing political environment be damned. Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, the chairman of the group, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, walked to the whiteboard and scrawled a single word.
The man who made that Ted Lasso-style exhortation went down to defeat on Tuesday. And Democrats are still facing the likelihood of ceding control of the House of Representatives to Republicans, no matter their morale-building exercises.
Yet Democrats turned in the strongest midterm showing in two decades for a party holding the White House, keeping the House on such a razor’s edge that control is still up for grabs days after the polls closed. In the Senate, Democrats have a path not only to keeping power but even to expanding their majority if the remaining races go their way, including a Georgia runoff. And the party won several key governorships, too.
The breadth of success caught even the most optimistic corners of the party by surprise. House Republicans had planned a big victory party on Tuesday, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi was hunkered down behind closed doors at a Democratic headquarters.
All the conditions appeared to have been set for a Democratic wipeout: inflation at 40-year highs, concerns about crime, elevated gas prices, the typical thrust for change.
How the midterms turned out so improbably was, in many ways, a function of forces beyond Democrats’ control. A Supreme Court decision that stripped away a half-century of abortion rights galvanized their base. A polarizing, unpopular and ever-present former president, Donald J. Trump, provided the type of ready-made foil whom White Houses rarely enjoy.
But interviews with more than 70 people — party strategists, lawmakers and current and former White House officials — also revealed crucial tactical decisions, strategic miscalculations, misreading of polls, infighting and behind-the-scenes maneuvering in both parties that led the G.O.P. to blow its chance at a blowout.
In the end, Democrats defied both history and the political gravity of Mr. Biden’s low approval ratings, while Republicans squandered what some saw as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to seize power.
ImageControl of both the House and the Senate remains undecided.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times
In an interview days before the election, Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, said it looked “like a perfect storm” was brewing. “I call this a hinge election,” he said. “This is the year that you go take market share.” Instead, his party is limping toward the 218 seats needed to win control of the House, a majority so tenuous it could make governance next to impossible.
Mr. Biden and the Democrats spent months unrelentingly defining their Republican opposition as extremists in the thrall of Mr. Trump, ignoring internal Democratic second-guessing and demands to focus more heavily on the economy. It seems to have worked: Democrats won a crucial slice of voters who were otherwise displeased with the president, breaking with historical precedent in midterms.
Republicans might not have had a shot at the House at all if not for a court ruling that let stand a brutal Republican gerrymander in Florida and another that tossed a Democratic gerrymander in New York. Those two decisions swung as many as six seats — potentially the entire G.O.P. margin in a close-fought contest.
Republicans did score some tactical successes: A handful of recruiting coups and interventions in primaries could end up making all the difference, given the narrowness of the margin. At one point, there was also a late-night scramble to stop the impetuous Mr. Trump from wreaking havoc in a key state. But House Republicans also misinterpreted late movement in polling as forecasting a wave that never materialized, and Senate Republicans were waylaid by backbiting and disagreements at the highest ranks.
“This is not a referendum,” Mr. Biden said in late October as he cast his ballot in Delaware. “It’s a choice.”
Who Will Control Congress? Here’s When We’ll Know.
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Much remains uncertain. For the second Election Day in a row, election night ended without a clear winner. Nate Cohn, The Times’s chief political analyst, takes a look at the state of the races for the House and Senate, and when we might know the outcome:
The House. Republicans are likelier than not to win the House, but it is no certainty. There are still several key races that remain uncalled, and in many of these contests, late mail ballots have the potential to help Democrats. It will take days to count them.
The Senate. The fight for the Senate comes down to two states: Nevada and Georgia. Outstanding ballots in Nevada could take days to count, but control of the chamber may ultimately hinge on Georgia, which is headed for a Dec. 6 runoff.
How we got here. The political conditions seemed ripe for Republicans to make big midterm pickups, but voters had other ideas. Read our five takeaways and analysis of why the “red wave” didn’t materialize for the G.O.P.
Little did Mr. Biden know that a private poll from his home state was spreading like wildfire. It showed his approval rating woefully underwater, by 11 percentage points, in a state he had won in a landslide. If the president had fallen so far and so fast in Delaware, where his name was slapped on everything from a rest stop to an Amtrak station, then Democrats feared a drubbing was surely on the horizon.
Yet it never came. Voters may not have liked Joe Biden. But Republicans couldn’t capitalize.
ImageFormer President Donald J. Trump endorsed Joe Lombardo, center, in July in Las Vegas.Credit…Roger Kisby for The New York Times
‘The Greatest President’
It was almost midnight on the first Sunday in October. Ronna McDaniel had just settled into bed when her phone rang. It was Donald J. Trump. He was not happy.
Someone had sent the former president clips of that evening’s debate in the Nevada governor’s race. The Trump-endorsed Republican nominee, Joe Lombardo, the sheriff of Clark County, had declined to call Mr. Trump a “great” president and had backed off Mr. Trump’s stolen-election lie.
Mr. Trump fumed about withdrawing his endorsement, threatening to throw into chaos one of the nation’s most consequential swing states, a place with three competitive House races and a tossup Senate seat. Ms. McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, pleaded with the former president. She asked him for one hour to fix the situation, according to people familiar with the call.
Mr. Lombardo soon issued a statement calling Mr. Trump a “great president.” The crisis was averted. The next week, when Mr. Trump held a Nevada rally, Mr. Lombardo joined the chorus singing his praises onstage.
“The greatest president, right?” Mr. Lombardo said. “Donald J. Trump!” On Friday night, the race was called for Mr. Lombardo.
From start to finish, Mr. Trump was a recurring distraction for party leaders trying to engineer a congressional takeover. He turned the acceptance of his lie about the 2020 election into a litmus test and prized displays of loyalty over political skill, viewing the midterms mostly through the prism of what would help him. The scramble among senior Republicans to harness Mr. Trump as a force for good and not for chaos continued through the hours before Election Day, to head off a pre-election announcement of a 2024 presidential run.
ImageCampaign signs for Kari Lake and Blake Masters at a campaign event in Phoenix.Credit…Rebecca Noble for The New York Times
Complicating matters in the Senate was the fact that Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, and Mr. Trump are not on speaking terms. After several first-time, Trump-backed candidates won primaries, Mr. McConnell complained over the summer about his party’s “candidate quality.”
Among his targets was Arizona’s Blake Masters.
During the summer, Steven Law, the head of a McConnell-aligned super PAC, told the financier Peter Thiel, who had spent millions supporting Mr. Masters, that Mr. Masters had scored the worst focus group results of any candidate he had ever seen, according to people familiar with the conversation.
Mr. Law’s group later canceled all of its Arizona television reservations. On Friday evening, Mr. Masters lost as the race was called for his Democratic opponent, Senator Mark Kelly.
The super PAC’s budget had been sapped by the need to prop up another Trump-backed candidate, J.D. Vance, who emerged from the Ohio primary bruised and broke.
“It just didn’t look like Vance was going to have the critical mass of resources to play a major factor in his own race,” said Mr. Law, whose super PAC redirected $32 million to Ohio. Mr. Vance won.
Mr. McCarthy took a different tack with Mr. Trump, flying to Florida weeks after a Trump-inspired mob had violently stormed the Capitol. “People can judge whatever they want,” Mr. McCarthy said in the interview. “I’m trying to keep people together, and I’m trying to win a majority.”
The alliance has put Mr. McCarthy on the precipice of the speakership even as it limited his party’s appeal, trapping Republicans between a base still loyal to the former president and independent voters who rejected him in two consecutive elections.
Mr. McCarthy said the relationship had still proved critical. “If you look at the difference between our candidates and the Senate, why do we have better candidates?” he said. “I work with the president.”
ImageMr. Trump arriving at his election night party at Mar-a-Lago in Florida on Tuesday.Credit…Josh Ritchie for The New York Times
How Democrats Embraced ‘MAGA’
For years, Mr. Biden has been fond of saying that “this is not your father’s Republican Party” to highlight the G.O.P.’s rightward drift. But the consensus-seeking former senator was loath to paint with too broad a brush.
Informal conversations with historians helped change his mind.
The historians explained to Mr. Biden the power of labels and how they had been used in the past to successfully confront far-right factions, helping him gain comfort in publicly tagging Republican extremism as “MAGA Republicans,” according to a White House official who discussed the issue with him. A study by Biden allies identified “MAGA” as the most effective label — a phrase connoting “extreme,” “power-hungry” and “radical” for some voters.
The president’s initial rollout of “ultra-MAGA” — in a speech about the economy — was met with derision, even from some Democrats. Mr. Trump co-opted the phrase to sell pint glasses. “I’m the MAGA king,” Mr. Trump declared just before the election.
ImagePresident Biden preparing to address a crowd in Washington on Thursday.Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times
But Mr. Biden and the Democrats stuck with it, pressing voters to render a verdict on something other than Democrats’ handling of the economy. The October assault on Ms. Pelosi’s husband punctuated the high price of extremism, and Mr. Biden delivered an address on the threats to democracy to keep it at the fore.
Anita Dunn, a senior White House adviser, credited Mr. Biden for setting up the stakes as a choice — “between election deniers and protecting democracy,” she said, and “between a party that threatened a national ban on reproductive health and a party that promised to codify Roe v. Wade into law.”
Voters have repeatedly punished the president’s party for their unhappiness with the state of the nation. Tuesday’s results represented a stark break from that pattern.
Democrats actually won voters who “somewhat disapproved” of Mr. Biden, according to initial exit polling, by a margin of 49 percent to 45 percent. That is a far cry from the 2010 and 2018 midterms, when voters who somewhat disapproved of Barack Obama and Mr. Trump overwhelmingly backed the opposing party — by margins of 40 points and nearly 30 points.
“The voters got the final say, as they always do,” Ms. Dunn said, “when they proved the pundits and ‘Democratic strategists’ wrong once again.”
ImageSupporters of Mr. Trump at a rally before the midterms in Latrobe, Pa.Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times
‘I’ve Never Seen That Before’
In the Senate, the two top Republicans charged with winning the majority — Mr. McConnell and Senator Rick Scott, chairman of the Senate Republican campaign arm — seemed at times to be battling each other as much as the Democrats.
Mr. Scott had pledged a hands-off approach to primaries; Mr. McConnell preferred interventions. Mr. McConnell wanted 2022 to be exclusively a referendum on Mr. Biden; Mr. Scott put out his own agenda, which included putting Social Security on the chopping block, a position the White House used to hammer Republicans.
Nowhere was the dysfunctional relationship more apparent than in New Hampshire.
There, Mr. McConnell’s aligned super PAC had spent millions to stop Don Bolduc, a right-wing candidate, from winning the primary. He won anyway and was quickly embraced by both Mr. Scott and the super PAC.
Then, on Oct. 7, Mr. Scott’s cash-strapped Senate committee abruptly pulled all its remaining money from New Hampshire. Mr. Law, the super PAC strategist, was confounded by the party’s decision.
“Evacuated — without explanation,” Mr. Law said. “I’ve never seen that before, absent a scandal.”
The party said other groups were filling the breach, including Mr. Law’s super PAC. But two weeks later, Mr. Law canceled his remaining ads. Suddenly, it was the party that was confounded — and sure enough, the party committee reversed itself to go back on the air days later.
Mr. Law could only laugh. “I don’t know what to make of it,” he said.
The back-and-forth crystallized an almost comical set of misfires and wasted resources — and the larger problem in which Senate Republicans were so often at cross-purposes.
On Tuesday, Senator Maggie Hassan, the Democrat, comfortably defeated Mr. Bolduc.
ImageRepresentative Kevin McCarthy’s corridor at the Capitol.Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times
Changing Face of the G.O.P.
Mr. McCarthy vividly remembers the first State of the Union he attended as Republican leader back in 2019. He looked around the House chamber and felt as though there was something gravely wrong on his side of the aisle.
The Republicans were overwhelmingly old, white and male. “To be frank with you, I watched the Democrats stand up, and they looked like America,” said Mr. McCarthy, who is white. “And we looked like the most restrictive country club in America.”
“That had to change — or I was going to be the leader of a declining party,” Mr. McCarthy said.
In 2020, Republicans had already narrowed Ms. Pelosi’s majority, picking up 14 seats. Every new Republican member who flipped a seat that year was either a woman, a person of color or a veteran. Mr. McCarthy saw a blueprint for a 2022 red wave.
From the moment of Mr. Biden’s victory in 2020, the tailwind of history was behind House Republicans. In the last 90 years, the party that holds the White House has lost an average of 28 seats in the House in a midterm election. And this year, Republicans needed just five to flip the chamber.
Mr. McCarthy aggressively recruited candidates across the country, building a slate of 67 nonwhite candidates this fall. In some cases, Mr. McCarthy would patch in Donald Trump Jr. on recruiting calls. Mr. McCarthy’s allied super PAC would fund favored candidates.
The first Republican to defeat a Democratic incumbent on Tuesday, Jennifer Kiggans, a former Navy pilot, cleared her primary with nearly $600,000 in super PAC support. In Arizona, the same super PAC spent $1 million helping Juan Ciscomani. Mr. Ciscomani had been a top aide to one of Mr. Trump’s Republican enemies, Gov. Doug Ducey, and the McCarthy team fiercely lobbied to keep Mr. Trump out of the race.
Mr. Trump stayed out of the race of only one House Republican who had voted to impeach him: Representative David Valadao of California, a McCarthy ally in a heavily Democratic swing seat.
Mr. Ciscomani and Mr. Valadao both lead in races that are too close to call.
In Michigan, the McCarthy operation wooed John James, a Black veteran, to run for a seat in a newly drawn district, releasing a poll that showed him beating the region’s two Democratic incumbents. The Democrats ran against each other in a neighboring district rather than face Mr. James.
Mr. James’s narrow win on Tuesday accounted for one of the party’s precious few flips.
Mr. James was in Mr. McCarthy’s office the day of the 2019 State of the Union. “He told me that he was self-conscious about the makeup of the conference,” Mr. James recalled. “I never forgot that conversation.”
ImageIn Philadelphia, volunteers gathered at a Democratic canvassing event the day before the election.Credit…Kriston Jae Bethel for The New York Times
The Abortion and Money Factor
The first reverberations of the biggest political earthquake of the cycle were felt online. The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, upending a half-century of federally guaranteed abortion rights. Almost immediately, money came pouring into ActBlue, the Democratic online donation site.
An analysis of federal records showed that since the fall of Roe, Democrats had raised $627.7 million through ActBlue — more than two and a half times the $239.3 million Republican haul on WinRed, the G.O.P. donation portal — expanding an existing money edge.
The cash disparity served as an early warning sign for Republican enthusiasm. In contrast to other midterms, the party out of power was the one most energized by what was being taken away from it. From coast to coast, Democratic campaigns ran abortion ads over the summer, casting Republicans as extremists and then winning some key races, including an abortion-related referendum in Kansas and a special House election in New York.
In late August, the Republican National Committee gathered its biggest donors for an emergency call. Money and morale were down. Democratic poll numbers were up. “It was a moment we had to calm everybody down,” Ms. McDaniel, the party chairwoman, said in an interview. “We were stopping the panic.”
The Republican financial calvary soon arrived.
The leading House and Senate G.O.P. super PACs combined to spend more than $400 million after Sept 1. The McCarthy-aligned super PAC had a financial edge of nearly $90 million over its Democratic counterpart, almost entirely because 10 conservative families gave a combined total of more than $100 million.
Republicans used their financial might to stretch the House map deep into Democratic territory, though most of those races — outside New York — ended in losses. A House Republican strategist said private polling had showed their candidates surging late. They presumed a backlash to inflation, other economic issues and the president would push them over the finish line. It did not.
Among those targeted in the final blitz was the man overseeing the Democratic campaign operation: Mr. Maloney.
Mr. Maloney had spent months goading Republicans to come after him. Then, after the super PAC announced plans to spend an additional $4 million, he joked to aides that he suddenly felt like the “Jurassic Park” character who taunted the T. rex to draw it away from the children, only to find himself running for his own life.
In the days since his loss, Mr. Maloney has told people he hoped the national G.O.P. money spent against him might have, at the least, saved a few of his colleagues.
ImagePoll workers continued counting ballots the day after the election in Las Vegas.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times
Ruth Igielnik contributed polling analysis.