The story of President Joe Biden’s election night can be told by the two congratulatory messages he delivered about four hours apart.
The first went to Representative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, the second to Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman. Together, the messages represented an initial signal from an electorate that appears poised to stand up to decades of American voters delivering cascading midterm losses for a first-term president.
White House officials treaded cautiously early Wednesday morning not to come up with any definitive conclusions, fully aware that the votes would be counted in the days to come. In a west wing full of campaign veterans, the idea of drawing any final conclusions while votes were still being counted and key races weren’t being called was, as one official described it, “a wild ride “.
But on several fronts, Biden advisers said they saw the early results as early-stage vindication that their multi-faceted messaging approach — one that had drawn criticism for not focusing more on the economy. – may have landed more fully than expected.
“We defied historical trends,” a senior Biden adviser told CNN. “It’s pretty extraordinary if you think about it.”
“Just a historical tendency to oppose,” said another Biden adviser.
Millions of votes remain to be counted and three races that hold the keys to a majority in the Senate remain unsettled. One of them — the Georgia Senate contest — will be decided in a runoff in a month. Republicans still appear poised to take a majority in the House, an outcome fraught with radically reshaped political, political and investigative implications that Biden and his advisers have not had to grapple with in their first two years.
But the optimism in the White House about the Democratic path to retaining the Senate was real — even if tempered by the reality that the hottest races still remained too close to be called.
Several states with abortion-related ballot measures all appeared to be heading for victories for abortion rights advocates, underscoring the importance of an issue that Democrats sought to exploit in the wake of the ruling. the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Democrats taking on election-denying Republicans in critical races for the Secretary of State have also been victorious or hanging on to leads in races to be the top statewide election official. Biden’s decision to elevate the centrality of “democracy on the ballot” had drawn grumbling from some Democrats who feared it was not a driver of voter sentiment.
And Democrats also retained the governor’s mansion in three critical swing states – Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – where the lies pushed by former President Donald Trump and his supporters about the 2020 election had been rampant.
But it was Virginia’s 7th congressional district and the US Senate race in Pennsylvania that really made it clear: the midterm erasure that had plagued so many of Biden’s predecessors had not materialized.
Shortly before 10 p.m. ET, as Biden called a first group of seven Democrats, Spanberger’s race was still considered too close to call. It was a race that White House officials had quietly identified before Election Day as a harbinger of the night to come, and they were watching it closely.
Although the close race was not called, Biden still offered congratulations as the frontline Virginia Democrat began to widen her lead, giving the White House reassurance that the contest was headed in her favor. .
For Biden, Spanberger’s victory had several layers of meaning beyond its broader signal about the political environment. A moderate Democrat who toppled her district in the 2018 Democratic wave, Spanberger is, in the words of one Biden adviser, “kind of a Biden Democrat.”
She has strongly pushed back against the progressive proposals that have driven the party in recent years, largely aligning herself with Biden’s more tempered view of Democratic policies. But she also delivered a scathing critique of Biden’s own national agenda in the final days of what would become a victory in the race for the reliable blue Virginia governor last year.
“Nobody elected him to be FDR, they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos,” Spanberger said in The New York Times.
The remarks caught Biden’s attention, and he quickly asked to speak to Spanberger by phone. Within two months, he was in his district hosting a formal event, even as other frontline Democrats took clear steps to distance themselves from Biden’s declining approval ratings.
As the race finally turned, it marked a critical moment for Biden and his political team, who entered the night with the idea that there was a path to hold the Democratic majority in the Senate. They had campaigned by hammering home Biden’s agenda and relentlessly framing the vote as a hard choice at hand, aimed at dampening growing talk of a red wave of Republican victories across the country.
If Spanberger’s run marked the first signs of a more positive night than expected, it was Fetterman’s that provided the exclamation point.
With Democrats clinging to the narrowest of Senate majorities, the Pennsylvania seat held by retired Republican Senator Pat Toomey represented the only viable pick-up opportunity in a handful of sweepstakes that looked set to crash in the both directions.
That Fetterman is very publicly recovering from a stroke he suffered for six months, including a debate performance that led some Democrats to question his decision to move forward, placed a cloud of uncertainty over a race in a state that Biden fired in the Democratic column by just over 80,000 votes in 2020.
But unlike so many other hotly contested states and districts, Biden never shied away from running in his home state — and Fetterman never shunned Biden when he did. That included the highest-profile Democratic campaign rally of the cycle last weekend, where Biden and former President Barack Obama teamed up with Fetterman and Josh Shapiro, the party’s gubernatorial nominee, to make one final run. to participation in the juice in the Democratic stronghold of Philadelphia.
Biden left that rally bolstered by the enthusiasm he saw, an adviser told CNN — something of a personal data point for the self-identified “congenital optimist” who never seemed perturbed by the Democratic anxiety that has become pervasive in the final weeks of the campaign.
Yet neither was he shy about laying out his view of the issues at hand — one in which the Republican center of gravity had not shifted away from Trump in the two years since his election defeat.
“This is a defining moment for the nation,” Biden said as he neared the end of his remarks in Philadelphia.
Even though Biden made congratulatory phone calls to 35 victorious Democrats, he remained behind closed doors. A White House official said his calls were over for the night and, while there’s nothing officially scheduled, the first opportunity to hear Biden’s views would likely come later Wednesday. .
Finally, Fetterman’s race was announced shortly after 1 a.m. ET Wednesday morning. Shortly after, a White House official delivered a simple message that wasn’t subtle in his nod to Biden’s repeated visits to Pennsylvania as other Democrats kept him at bay.
“The president had a great time with the senator-elect on Saturday,” the official said.
Biden’s electoral future will soon take center stage, as he enters the critical period when he will make a final decision on whether to run for re-election. Biden’s 2020 opponent, Trump, has already taken steps toward launching his own campaign.
But despite all the uncertainty, Biden advisers ended the night by assuring that a sweeping red wave — and their administration’s implied indictment they fought to part with — did not materialize.
Biden, for his part, decided to reach out to another Democrat before ending his evening: He texted Fetterman, congratulating him on his victory.
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