Georgia ends 2022 midterm cycle that challenged and confounded Washington: ANALYSIS

PHOTO: Supporters of U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock attend an election night party after polls closed for the U.S. midterm runoff election, Dec. 6, 2022, in Atlanta. PlayCarlos Barria/Reuters
WATCH Raphael Warnock projected to win Georgia Senate runoff

By the numbers recorded in the history books, the 2022 midterms are unlikely to look seismic.

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No incumbent senator lost his or her job, and Georgia's runoff win on Tuesday means Democrats will add a single seat to the Senate majority they already had. Republicans picked up only nine seats in the House, enough to take control by the mirror image of the narrow margin that left them in the minority after 2020.

But behind the tidy figures were complicated and downright confounding forces that leave both parties struggling for governing takeaways and lessons learned. An election that defied history and both parties' expectations sets up an equally uncertain future -- shaped by things that neither party's leaders seem to truly understand or fully control.

"This will make it easier for us to get some things done," Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock told President Joe Biden in celebrating his victory on Tuesday night.

Biden readily agreed. But the truth is far more complicated -- a reality recognized inside both the White House and a Republican Party still reeling from missed opportunities, particularly in that Georgia race.

Consequential elections are sometimes described as ushering in new political eras. This midterm cycle, though, may herald a half-dozen or more overarching dynamics -- all of which will be subject to the whims of an unpredictable presidential cycle that's already begun.

PHOTO: Supporters of Reverend Raphael Warnock attend a election night party after polls closed for the U.S. midterm runoff elections between Warnock and his Republican challenger Herschel Walker in Atlanta, on Dec. 6, 2022. Carlos Barria/Reuters
Supporters of Reverend Raphael Warnock attend a election night party after polls closed for the U.S. midterm runoff elections between Warnock and his Republican challenger Herschel Walker in Atlanta, on Dec. 6, 2022.

This year brought divided government to the Biden presidency while also fueling new optimism about Democrats' messaging and capabilities. It brought harsh judgments on former President Donald Trump and his chosen candidates, yet no model that sees the GOP winning key races without the movement he continues to control.

The contradictions continue: Republicans will control the House but are wrestling with themselves over who should be their speaker. The "President Manchin" chapter of the Senate ends at the same time most legislative efforts would likely stall anyway. Biden emerges more likely to run for a second term but with less clarity among Democrats as to whether that's a good thing.

The conflicts extend to new realities on Capitol Hill. Whether Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy or someone else becomes House speaker, oversight and investigations will dominate the congressional agenda -- assuming spending brinksmanship doesn't become all-consuming.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer can exult, as he did Wednesday, that Democrats "can breathe a sigh of relief" with a 51st Senate seat. But both the moderate and progressive factions in the chamber feel emboldened at the moment -- with a president whose impulses have drawn him to both of those camps at different times.

Democrats will be mainly playing defense while wanting to play offense where they can. Republicans will be tempted to take their fights aggressively to Biden, despite elections where voters in battleground states rejected Trump-aligned candidates.

PHOTO: Malcolm Davis, walks through during an election night watch party, on Dec. 6, 2022, in Atlanta. Brynn Anderson/AP
Malcolm Davis, walks through during an election night watch party, on Dec. 6, 2022, in Atlanta.

Georgia ratified an important point: Candidates matter, especially when the stakes are high and real. Republican Senate nominee Herschel Walker got fewer votes than Warnock in both November and December, even though all the other Republicans running statewide in Georgia won this year.

"For the third time in two years, the Georgia GOP missed an easy lay-up," Georgia's retiring lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, wrote in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed on Wednesday.

Walker almost certainly would not have sacrificed his football celebrity for politics if not for the urgings of and his friendship with Trump. MAGA-aligned candidates also lost potentially winnable Senate races in Arizona, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania; a victory in any of those states might have changed the equation in Georgia, since control of the Senate would have been at stake this week.

But blaming Trump for losses isn't totally warranted. Republican voters actually chose those candidates whom Trump backed in competitive primaries. In the case of Georgia, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell endorsed Walker more than a year ago, calling him the "only" candidate "who can unite the party" and win the seat.

That was clearly wrong. So were assumptions of a midterm "red wave" that would bring historic gains to Republicans -- and assumptions that House Democrats were safe in blue states like California and New York.

PHOTO: Supporters of U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock attend an election night party after polls closed for the U.S. midterm runoff election, Dec. 6, 2022, in Atlanta. Carlos Barria/Reuters
Supporters of U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock attend an election night party after polls closed for the U.S. midterm runoff election, Dec. 6, 2022, in Atlanta.

One takeaway from the election cycle that deserves notice is how little controversy surrounds the results. Trump's false claims about 2020 continue -- he's even calling for a new election while admitting that would fall outside the Constitution -- yet 2022 went smoothly, with only MAGA favorites in Arizona making legal noise about stolen elections.

The relative peace in the aftermath of the midterms is another data point that should not be over-interpreted. The challenges to democracy remain, with an unpredictable political future bringing further uncertainties.