All year long, Democrats talked optimistically about a blue wave that they believed was building around the country, one powerful enough to flip control of the House and even, against the odds, put the Senate in play as well. But a different reality began to set in during the early hours of election night, as the familiar contours of red and blue America powerfully reasserted themselves.
A potential change in the balance of power in the House alone would represent a pulling back from the president by key parts of the electorate, and it could have a significant effect on the second half of Trump's first term, particularly in Washington.
But the overall voting patterns in both House and Senate contests, as well as the exit polls, signaled that the differences and divisions that have defined the country during Trump's presidency remain and seemingly are growing stronger.
That sets the stage for a contentious and competitive presidential election two years from now, with the stakes now higher than ever.
Trump can claim credit for the Republican successes in key Senate races, as he campaigned relentlessly over the last weeks of the midterms, focusing heavily on states where he had done best in his 2016 victory.
By elevating the issue of immigration with warnings, without evidence, of a coming invasion of undocumented immigrants, Trump found a way to protect the GOP's narrow majority in the Senate. But those same tactics may have contributed to the success of Democrats in some of the most contested House races. Many House races remained to be decided, and Democrats fell short in some districts they had targeted.
This was an election that once again saw men and women moving in different directions. In key suburban districts, Democratic challengers were counting on the support of women, particularly women with college degrees, to push them over the top. But there were signs that white men, especially those without college degrees, who have become the backbone of the Trump coalition, also were coming out in significant numbers.
A Washington Post-Schar School poll found that women in battleground House districts were 10 percent more supportive of Democratic candidates than Republican candidates and white women with college degrees backing Democratic candidates by roughly 30 percentage points. White men with college degrees, by way of contrast, narrowly supported Republican candidates.
Republicans had suffered from an intensity gap earlier in this election cycle, but a combination of factors helped to narrow the Democrats' advantage. In part, the normal patterns of partisans coming home as Election Day neared took hold. But the confirmation battle over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which turned into a bitter fight, helped to energize the GOP coalition as well. Added to that was Trump's relentless campaigning.
The Post-Schar School survey underscored the degree to which this midterm, perhaps more than any in the recent past, had raised the emotional level of the population. Nearly 4 in 10 voters (37 percent) in battleground districts said the principal word they would use to describe their feelings about this election was "angry." Another 37 percent called themselves "anxious."
Perhaps reflecting the exhaustion of a time in which everything seems hyper partisan and supercharged, 44 percent said they were hopeful about what the election results would bring. Network exit polls, meanwhile, found that nearly 8 in 10 Americans said they believed the country was more divided than ever.
If projections hold and Democrats emerge in control of the House, both Democratic congressional leaders and the president will face some difficult choices in the months ahead. The president will have to decide whether to try to work with Democrats or not. Congressional Democrats will have to make a similar calculation.
Democrats have pledged to move forward on an agenda that includes political change, health care and infrastructure. They and Trump could find agreement on infrastructure and possibly on drug prices. The two sides also will have to reach agreement on a budget and an extension of the debt ceiling. The new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico will consume time during the first half of 2019, too.
But the bigger question that will define the coming year or more is what Democrats decide to do about investigating the president and his administration. And looming over that is the pending findings from special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the investigation into Russia's role in the 2016 election and possible collusion with people associated with the Trump campaign.
That will define the battle inside the nation's capital, the close-in maneuvering between the president and his opposition. What isn't likely to change is how the country as a whole views the battle and which side people stand on.
The likeliest outcome from Tuesday's election represents a change in the status quo in Washington, a significant one at that. But it might end up doing little to affect the overall shape of the political state of the union.