(CN) – All across America voters surged to polls Tuesday to support their choice for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, governorships, and scores of other state offices and initiatives, often overwhelming their precincts and poll watchers.
But there was no denying that in the end, this midterm election was — first and last — a referendum on Trump presidency.
President Trump acknowledged as much himself in a series of campaign rallies over the past several days.
During a six-day campaign tour that saw him appear at 11 rallies in eight states, the president implored his supporters to vote because “in a certain way I am on the ballot.”
“Whether we consider it or not, the press is very much considering it a referendum on me and us as a movement,” he told a crowd in Macon, Georgia.
“It’s all fragile,” Trump told supporters on a telephone “town hall” organized by his re-election campaign. “Everything I told you about, it can be undone and changed by the Democrats if they get in.”
“You see how they’ve behaved. You see what’s happening with them. They’ve really become radicalized,” he added.
But even as he said this, Trump consciously distanced himself from the fate of House Republican candidates, and in the end that may have doomed many candidates in his own party who were locked in tight House races to the very last day.
Instead, the president threw in his lot with Senate and gubernatorial candidates who had every chance of winning without him.
Because of the stakes, Tthe 2018 midterms have often been compaired to the 1994 “Contract with America” election, a midterm that saw Republicans take control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.
They did it by coelescing around a single message — that President Bill Clinton was a “tax and spend” liberal — and a single program — the “Contract,” a list of promises largely crafted by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
When the dust settled, the GOP had gained 54 seats in the House, picked up eight seats in the Senate, and Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House.
This year, the Democrats need to gain 26 seats in the House, and as the polls opened on the east coast Tuesday morning, the respected Cook Political Report rated 75 races as competitive, including 70 GOP-held seats and just five held by Democrats.
The analysis also suggested that a “Red Exodus” would contribute to a much-discussed “Blue Wave” that Democrats had been hoping for; of 41 open seats previously held by Republicans, 15 were rated as toss ups or worse. And another five were said to only be leaning Republican.
Heading into Election Day, Democrats embraced the analysis as a sign that their goal was well within reach; Republicans, meanwhile, looked at the same numbers and said they show their rivals had failed to arouse the passions of the electorate.
But that latter assumption was quickly undone as soon as one actually encountered voters at the polls.
“I am praying,” said a woman named Terry, clutching a reporter’s arm. “I’m praying because I am so sick and so nervous.”
“He is the worst president we have ever had. He is a bigot. He separates us. There has never been so much hate.”
A retired artist from the fashion industry, she did not want to give her last name. Outside her polling place at a Presbyterian church in Pasadena, she said one old friend has suddenly emerged as a bigot.
“All of a sudden she just wants white people,” said Terry who is herself white. “She doesn’t want blacks, browns, Asians, you name it. She saying it now because she feels she can.”
“This is so different,” Terry added, grabbing the reporter’s arm once more. “You have to fight. This man. What is he doing to us. He’s preaching such hate and division. I’m praying that tomorrow I will feel better.”
Steve Sandoval, 49, a retired Army paratrooper, said in the end, “It’s about leadership. [And Donald Trump is] not that leader.
“I don’t approve of his tactics, demonizing, division,” he said.
But Sandoval said he does not see a clear Democratic leader emerging either.
He said Bernie Sanders “is one of the last honest politicians we have,” but added, “He’s past his prime.”
Of those who’ve emerged during the midterms, Sandoval admires Beto O’Rourke.
“I’m hoping Beto wins. “I’m looking for balance,” he said. “ … as opposed to fucking it up and getting away with it.”
Thai Truong, 43, came to the U.S. from Vietnam. His father was a refugee in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. Truong is now a research professor at USC in the fields of neuroscience and physics.
“This is a historic election,” he said. “It’s a chance to correct course or keep going.”
A registered Democrat, he is pessimistic about his party’s chances to win a presidential election in two years. “I don’t see anybody from our side,” he said. “It’s scary. Two years is such a short time.”
He said the Democrats have been “dancing around” the immigration issue. “Are you afraid of your white culture being usurped by these people? The Democratic side has to be able to talk about that, address those concerns from a large swath of America.”
He is not confident Tuesday’s election will lead to a change of course. “I’m bracing myself,” said Truong.
Clarence Irvin, a 25-year-old graphic artist, said immigration has been an issue since the elder George Bush was president. Irvin, who is black, added, “Trump is just trying to appease his base.”
In Prescott Valley, Arizona, Bill Vittal, an environmental engineer, said it was the outcome of the 2016 election that motivated him to vote this year. ” I wanted to make sure I weighed in to provide a counterweight to what’s going on.”
Molly Beverly, a semi-retired chef who has lived in the Prescott area since 1974, said she too was upset by the 2016 election, and said with her vote, “I want to turn the country around from the control of the wealthy.”
Beverly, a volunteer for Nextgen Arizona, a voting advocacy group, said “The middle class is really hurting, and the bottom of the middle class is dropping out. My husband and I both came out of school with graduate degrees and enough money to buy a house.”
“I’m encouraged seeing people voting and running for office,” she said.
the nation’s most watched race is in Texas, where Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke has waged a spirited and tremendously well-financed campaign against incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
For Michael Hunter, a 43-year-old mechanic, the decision to support Cruz was easy given the senator’s role in passing last year’s tax cuts and for his support of Trump on securing Texas’ border with Mexico.
“No sensible person opposes legal immigration, immigrants are engrained in this community,” he said. “I do not understand why some people say that wanting to secure the border and halt illegal immigration is somehow racist.”
But Beto had strong support in Texas’ liberal stronghold of Austin, where 29-year-old Philip Matthews said “Ted Cruz is the perfect example of what is wrong with politics today.
“He has no integrity. He only called in Trump to stump for him when he was scared to lose despite what Trump said about him and his wife. I believe Beto has more integrity than that,” Matthews said.
Joyce Cawthorne, 52, said she was also “all in on Beto.”
“He is a man who has taken the grass roots approach to reach out to the voters of Texas which is a welcome change of pace for our state,” he said.
Others went to the polls in Austin not to support O’Rourke or Cruz, but to give a thumbs down to the president.
“Trump’s immigration policy I feel is a slap in the face to my people [Mexicans]. I’m here to vote against anyone who is Pro-Trump,” said Joseph Benito, a 34-year-old Mexican male.
On the East Coast, Lou Agre, a ward leader in Philadelphia’s 21st election district said he’d seen a “big turnout” by mid-morning, and despite the cold heavy rain that was falling over the city.
“We’ve had much bigger crowds than the studies even predicted,” Agre said.
As he spoke, scores of voters stood quietly in line, huddled under large umbrellas.
One of them, Mike Connor, said he was hopeful that after the votes were counted and the results known, “there’s be a little more balance” in terms of what’s going on in Washington.
“Especially in regard to what they’re doing with the [federal] budget … being fair about it,” he said.
He said if the country spent event a fraction of what it spends on the military on infrastructure, “it’d be much better well spent.”
“I think I’m doing my civic duty and it feels good to have the privilege to vote,” said Clarissa Jacknow as she stood in line. “I’m hoping to make some good changes, but most of the people I’ll be voting for are incumbents.”
Jacknow hopes to support social issues. She works for a non-profit and support from the government is really important she says. She’s voted in midterm elections before but it’s usually been absentee.
And at least one voter saw his presence on line as a repudiation of Trump and his policies.
“I think after the last set of elections, it’s really important to get out there and vote. It’s kind of like a duty to do it.” Ben Wax said. “I haven’t really voted in midterm elections before, but I am now.”
“It’s been like this since we opened the doors this morning,” a poll worker in Charleston, South Carolina said, as she surveyed an hours-long line roping around an elementary school cafeteria and let out a sigh.
“But this is nothing,” she added. “Yesterday afternoon, early voters packed the place.”
The early, heavy turnout on and before Tuesday morning didn’t provide much clarity as to where the races stood. Most political analysts said the large number of early voters, absentee voters and people lining up at their polling places suggests both parties have done a good job motivating their voters — meaning, if anything, close races and a very long night for anyone staying up to see the results.
And speaking of those early and absentee votes, some 38 million had been counted by mid-day election day, compared to 21 million that were counted in total during the 2014 midterm.
According to an analysis provided to NBC News, these included 3 million votes case by people under 30, and 1.7 million cast by individuals voting in their first-ever election.
For those hoping to see the so-called “blue wave” of victories for Democrats for Congress on Tuesday were looking most ardently at New Jersey, Virginia and Florida, with at least one race in South Carolina — for Rep. Mark Sanford’s seat — also in play.
As for the Senate races, Republicans are hoping to pick up seats in five generally Republican states — North Dakota, Montana, Indiana, Missouri and West Virginia — with well-funded, but vulnerable Democratic incumbents.
In the end, the results may well be determined by who has the right to vote. Since 2010 more than 20 states have adopted stricter Voter ID laws, cut back on the number of days that early voting takes place, and purged voting rolls for a number of reasons.
On Monday Trump upped the ante, tweeting, “Law Enforcement has been strongly notified to watch closely for any ILLEGAL VOTING which may take place in Tuesday’s Election (or Early Voting). Anyone caught will be subject to the Maximum Criminal Penalties allowed by law. Thank you!”
Since he took office in January 2017, Trump has repeatedly claimed, without evvidence, that more than 3 million people voted illegally in 2016.
He says this is how Democrat Hillary Clinton garnered nearly 3 million more votes than Trump nationwide.
But a number of studies have found voter fraud is a rarity in the United States. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, most reported cases of voter fraud can be traced to other issues, such as clerical errors.
The Brennan Center is running a live blog on its website Tuesday detailed polling place problems.
At first, the center said, the issues were “scattered.” In Detroit, voters showed up at one polling place, only to find that the voting machines were missing. In Houston, Texas, meanwhile, multiple poll locations were experiencing long lines due to technical difficulties with voting machines.
But by mid-afternoon, problems had gotten worse and more widespread.
In Richland County, South Carolina, voting machines at several polling places needed to be recalibrated after it was discovered they were registering votes for the opposite party whenever someone cast a straight, party-line ballot.
Some of the biggest problems were in Georgia, a state with a hotly contested gubernatorial election, where some voters reported waiting up to three hours to vote.
At a polling place in Snellville, Georgia, more than 100 people took turns sitting in children’s chairs and on the floor as they waited in line for hours. Voting machines at the Gwinnett County precinct did not work, so poll workers offered provisional paper ballots while trying to get a replacement machine.
One voter, Ontaria Woods, said about two dozen people who had come to vote left because of the lines.
“We’ve been trying to tell them to wait, but people have children. People are getting hungry. People are tired,” Woods said. Woods said she and others turned down the paper ballots because they “don’t trust it.”
Joe Sorenson, a spokesman for the county’s supervisor of elections, said some precincts “have had issues with express polls,” devices election workers use to check in voters and create access cards for voting machines.
Reports of broken ballot scanners surfaced at polling places across New York City. Turnout was so heavy at one packed precinct on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that the line to scan ballots stretched around a junior high school gym on Tuesday morning. P
oll workers there told voters that two of the roughly half-dozen scanners were malfunctioning and repairs were underway.
There was also confusion in Phoenix, Arizona, after a polling site was foreclosed on overnight. The owners of the property locked the doors, taking election officials by surprise. Voters had been sent to another precinct nearby, but Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes tweeted that the location in Chandler was up and running shortly after 7 a.m. Tuesday.
For about an hour after polls opened Tuesday morning, a Sarasota County, Florida, precinct had to tell voters to come back later because their ballots were not available.