Donald Trump was hoping to surf a Republican "red wave" to a fresh White House bid, but with only limited gains in Tuesday's midterm elections -- and an outstanding result for his chief intraparty rival -- the former US president seems to be left out to sea.
Though Republicans look likely to wrest control from the Democratic Party in at least one chamber of Congress, projections show they will not gain the large number of seats typical when the sitting president's approval ratings are so low, and inflation so high.
In the House, early results suggested Republicans were on track for a majority -- but only by a handful of seats -- while control of the Senate remains on a knife-edge and may hinge on a runoff election in the southern state of Georgia in early December.
Trump, who has teased the potential launch of a presidential campaign on November 15, remained in the spotlight throughout the campaign -- putting his thumb on key Republican primaries and holding rallies nationwide, during which he repeated his baseless claims of fraud in the 2020 race.
But with several of his hand-picked candidates underperforming -- some even losing Republican-held seats to Democrats -- analysts and some in his party are blaming him for the party's underwhelming election night.
Meanwhile, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has barely hidden his intent to run for president in 2024, resoundingly won reelection, cementing the rising Republican star's position as a formidable Trump opponent.
An editorial published Wednesday in conservative-leaning Fox News called DeSantis "the new Republican Party leader," while the front page of the New York Post dubbed him "DeFuture."
"It should have been extremely easy for Republicans to take back control of the House and the Senate, and to do so by a wide margin," University of Chicago's Jon Rogowski told AFP, pointing to the negative economic environment and Biden's low approval ratings.
"Many of the candidates he (Trump) endorsed underperformed and cost their party a chance at picking up seats that should have been winnable," said the political scientist.
"Other Republican candidates with whom he'd feuded publicly won their seats easily."
Georgia's Republican governor Brian Kemp, for example, came under the ire of Trump for certifying Biden's 2020 win in his state, and the former US president endorsed his opponent in the primary.
Kemp and Georgia's Republican secretary of state, also a Trump target, both easily won reelection.
- Candidate 'quality' -
The midterm results show that "you can be a conservative, you can be principled, you can oppose Trump -- and win," Peter Loge, a media professor at George Washington University, tells AFP.
Geoff Duncan, Georgia's lieutenant governor and longtime critic of the former president, told CNN Wednesday morning: "I think Donald Trump's moving from a movement to a distraction for the Republican Party."
Before the election on Tuesday, lead Senate Republican Mitch McConnell had voiced concern over the "quality" of some Trump-backed candidates.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats were able to flip a highly-prized US Senate seat with constant attacks on the Republican candidate, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, who had never held public office before and lived mostly in New Jersey.
The Republican candidate for Pennsylvania's gubernatorial race, the right-wing and anti-abortion Doug Mastriano, who was present at the January 6th assault on the US Capitol, also lost.
Some notable exceptions, however: the Trump-backed candidate for the US Senate seat from Ohio won, as did more than 100 Republican candidates who challenged the 2020 presidential election results, according to US media projections.
- 'Leave the stage' -
Trump on Wednesday morning was "livid" and "screaming at everyone," according to CNN reporter Jim Acosta, citing an advisor to the former president.
While he admitted that the election results were "somewhat disappointing," Trump on Wednesday posted to his Truth Social page that "from my personal standpoint it was a very big victory," pointing to the likely Republican win in the House.
He also argued that Don Bolduc, the Republican candidate in New Hampshire's Senate race, had lost because he walked back his skepticism of the 2020 election results.
"Had he stayed strong and true, he would have won, easily. Lessons Learned!" said Trump.
Rogowski says he expects Trump "will be eager to move past 2022 and will declare his candidacy for 2024 sooner than later."
Some political commentators have speculated Trump might delay his November 15 announcement, but he has not yet revealed any change in plans.
Such an early campaign launch by Trump, just under two years from the actual election, would serve to "consolidate his support early and crowd out other potential candidates," says Rogowski.
"But if he felt he were in a strong position, he would not need to declare so early."
While some may be hoping Trump steps aside and lets candidates such as DeSantis pick up the Republican banner, Loge says that is highly unlikely.
"The problem of becoming the next Trump is that the current Trump has to has to leave the stage," he says.
"Donald Trump isn't very good at leaving the stage."