Joe Biden on the phone, wearing a sweater, cap and a wry smile on his face. The US President tweeted this photo on election night. The Democrat has just congratulated a few party colleagues on their election victory. The picture describes the preliminary situation after the US midterm elections quite aptly. The outcome of the election is still too uncertain for Biden to smile broadly, and the 79-year-old can’t really breathe a sigh of relief yet. However, it is already clear that the mid-term elections in the middle of his term of office will end much more lightly for him than predicted. It doesn’t look like the big smack the Democrat had to fear.

The “midterm” elections will decide who will call the shots in Congress, what Biden can still do politically in the next two years, and how much Republicans can bully him in Parliament. The party of Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump had hoped for an overwhelming victory. But that doesn’t happen.

Even on the day after the election, it is still unclear who will control Congress in the future. And things could get ugly for Biden in the second half of his term if Republicans narrowly win a majority in one or both chambers of Congress. But it is already clear that they did not clear as expected. And even if they narrowly win a majority in Congress in the end, it will be difficult for them to keep their own ranks together. The party is torn between radical Trump supporters and old-school conservatives.

Trump’s presidential bid expected in 2024

This election night reveals a lot about Trump, his influence on the direction of the Republican Party and how much the country still wants to follow him – even if the ex-president was not on the ballot himself. The Republican supported a number of candidates in the election campaign and may have hoped to present himself as the driving force of his party. As the undisputed Republican strongman. Trump is expected to announce his 2024 presidential bid next week after weeks of unsubtle hints in that direction (“very, very, very likely”).

But election night shows that Trump’s influence as a kingmaker has its limits for others. A few particularly dazzling and sometimes radical candidates, whom he aggressively supported, lost: the controversial TV doctor Mehmet Oz, for example, who competed for a Senate seat in Pennsylvania in a sensational race against Democrat John Fetterman. Or the governor candidate in Pennsylvania Doug Mastriano – an ardent Trump supporter who spread his voter fraud fantasies and who could have been dangerous in the 2024 presidential election as an election denier. Governors in the US are involved in confirming presidential outcomes.

Opponents of Trump were also among the winners

On the other hand, some opponents of Trump from his own party win against Democratic candidates, for example in the key state of Georgia: the local governor, Brian Kemp, and the state’s chief election supervisor, Brad Raffensperger, prevail. The latter rose to national prominence when, in a legendary phone call after the 2020 presidential election, Trump pressured him to find a few thousand votes to overturn the state’s result (“I just want to find 11,780 votes.”). Raffensperger did not bow to the pressure at the time.

Above all, one election result for the Republicans that night is a bad sign for Trump: the clear success of his biggest inner-party rival Ron DeSantis in the gubernatorial election in Florida. DeSantis is considered one who could face Trump internally in the 2024 presidential race. A hardliner with Trump positions, but without the political and legal baggage of his party colleague. DeSantis is in no way inferior to Trump in terms of content, but does not share his penchant for scandals, loss of control and chaos. According to some critics, this makes him more dangerous than Trump.

The fact that Trump sees him as a real competitor is shown by the fact that he recently came up with a mocking nickname for DeSantis: “Ron DeSanctimoniuos”. “Sanctimonious” means hypocritical in German. And the fact that the ex-president is now threatening DeSantis with unpleasant revelations if he should run for 2024 (“If he runs, it could be very painful for him”) suggests that the competitor is making him really nervous.

The electoral fraud allegations resonate to this day

But the “midterm” elections also reveal something else about Trump: namely, what damage the Republican has done to US democracy by refusing to recognize his defeat by Biden in the 2020 presidential election. Trump challenged the ironclad societal understanding that at the end of an election, no matter how tough the campaign, both sides accept the outcome, winners and losers alike. That certainty no longer exists in the once-proud US democracy.

The Republicans fielded hundreds of candidates in the “Midterms” who shared Trump’s narrative of the “stolen election” of 2020 and spread doubts about the way elections are run. More than 160 of these election deniers have already prevailed. Some races are still open. Several of the “election deniers” openly made it clear before the election that they would not always accept the election result – that is, not if they lost. Years ago something like this would have been unthinkable in the USA. So Trumpism pulls, even if Trump as a person may have lost traction.

What’s also troubling is that the ex-president has successfully persuaded an astonishing proportion of the population that they cannot trust the US electoral system. According to a Midterms by-election poll, a third of Americans believe Biden was not legitimately elected in 2020. A third of the population doubts the basic principles of democracy. Biden and the Democrats have to do that in the long term – no matter how this election turns out.