For a few hours on election night, it appeared as though the midterms had turned disastrous for Democrats: The early returns suggested the party’s long-assumed House takeover might not happen after all, and that their performance in Senate races could turn out to be so bad that it would put the upper chamber out of reach not just for the next two years, but for the next four.
The Democratic nightmare was over by Wednesday morning, but the memory of it lingered. Mixed with their expectations-inflating thirst for a historically unique rebuke of Donald Trump, many on the left felt as though the party had blown it, even as plenty of key races were still undecided. “In the end it was only a blue ripple,” Nicholas Kristof declared in a New York Times op-ed under the headline: “Forget Excuses. What Counts Is Winning Elections.”
The Democrats’ midterm performance, though, has looked better with each passing day—and with a few more, may look even better still. As of last Wednesday morning, Democrats had picked up 26 seats in the House; as of this Tuesday, they’d extended their gains to 32 seats. Another 10 GOP battleground races remain too close to call, including four in which the Democrat is in the lead and a fifth, in Maine, where the state’s new ranked-voting system is expected to turn the district from red to blue.
While the topline result remains the same in the Senate—Republicans will keep the majority—what looked briefly like a potential five-seat massacre on election night now looks like an admirable defense a week later. With Kyrsten Sinema’s win in Arizona on Monday, Senate Democrats have now limited their net loss in the upper chamber to a maximum of just two seats. They could yet whittle that down to a single lost seat or even break even in the unlikely scenario that the Florida recount goes Sen. Bill Nelson’s way and/or Democrat Mike Espy manages to pull off a stunner in the Mississippi runoff later this month. But even a two-seat loss is incredible when you consider just how horrible the Senate calendar was for Democrats, who had to defend a total of 10 seats in states Trump won, four of which he did so by landslides of 18 percentage points or more.
Add that to their gains at the state level, where they flipped seven governor’s seats to likely winnow Republicans’ advantage in the gubernatorial department to only 27–23—the smallest margin since after the 2010 midterms—and there’s no disputing Democrats had a great night.
One major reason the early narrative missed the mark, though, was because real-time coverage of Election Day returns largely failed to account for Democrats’ advantage out West, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias notes. Forecast models like FiveThirtyEight’s overreacted to some early House returns, and then the chattering class freaked out as a few key battleground Senate races—Tennessee and Indiana among them—turned red faster than most had expected.
I’d argue there was another major contributing factor as well, one that helps explain why so many on the left have been unable to fully shake the notion that Democrats should have done better in the midterms even as it has become clear that they actually did quite well: For all the party’s midterm success, almost none of it was had by its popular stars.
Beto O’Rourke came up short against Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, and Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum’s bids to make history as the first black governor of Georgia and Florida, respectively, appear likely to do the same as vote counting continues in those states. Those results have so far denied the party the kind of marquee victory its rank-and-file craves, the one that become shorthand for sweeping success. (Meanwhile, Democrats’ most crucial victories were less about their own candidates and more about who they defeated, like Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Kris Kobach in Kansas, and Dean Heller in Nevada.)
The only House candidate who could rival the O’Rourke-Abrams-Gillum trio in terms of national attention heading into Election Day was probably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but her midterm victory was assured as soon as she stunned Rep. Joe Crowley in New York’s Democratic primary. Meanwhile, those other congressional challengers who popped up on the national radar from time to time during the past year fell off it for the foreseeable future on Tuesday.
Randy Bryce became a mustachioed folk hero to the left beginning last year, but he failed to flip outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan’s congressional district. Amy McGrath in Kentucky and MJ Hegar in Texas, likewise, made a name for themselves with inspiring campaign videos that went viral, but they too were unable to win battleground districts. It’s largely the same story as you move further down the list of notables: Kara Eastman lost in Nebraska, Dan McCready fell in North Carolina, Danny O’Connor was defeated (again) in Ohio, etc.* Those individual losses in places where most experts were watching combined to obscure what was happening in places they weren’t. But the good news for Democrats is that the election night narrative matters far less than the final results.
Correction, Nov. 12, 2018: An earlier version of this post misspelled Danny O’Connor’s last name.