Control of the U.S. Senate is a razor-thin proposition in Tuesday’s election, as Republicans fight to retain their majority against a surge of Democratic candidates confronting the president’s allies across a vast political map.
Both parties see paths to victory, and the outcome might not be known on election night. Democrats have more than one route to secure the three or four seats needed to capture the majority.
Polls have closed in several key states where some of the nation’s most well-known senators were on the ballot.
After an expensive campaign, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fended off Democrat Amy McGrath, a former fighter pilot, in Kentucky.
WATCH | Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reacts after winning in Kentucky:
In South Carolina, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham secured a fourth term in the Senate, defeating Democrat Jaime Harrison.
The two crisscrossed the state in a rush of final campaigning, with Graham acknowledging the tight contest and previously making direct appeals for cash on Fox News.
If Harrison had won, South Carolina would have been the first state in U.S. history to be represented simultaneously by two Black senators.
In Alabama, former college football coach Tommy Tuberville has recaptured a U.S. Senate seat for the Republicans by defeating Democrat Sen. Doug Jones, who had been widely considered the Senate’s most endangered Democrat.
Republicans had made recapturing the once reliably red state a priority in 2020.
Tuberville, who has never held public office, aligned himself closely with U.S. President Donald Trump and declared in the primary campaign, “God sent us Donald Trump.”
Cornyn keeps his seat
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas has defeated Democrat MJ Hegar in his hardest-fought battle in almost two decades.
Cornyn held an edge in polls and fundraising for most of the race but was still forced to mount an unusually aggressive defence as Democrats poured millions of dollars into Hegar’s campaign.
His victory came in the face of uncommon headwinds for Republicans in Texas.
Big win for Democrats in Colorado
However, despite those big wins, Republicans did suffer a setback in the battle for control of the Senate as Democrats picked up a seat in Colorado.
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner was defeated by Democrat John Hickenlooper.
Hickenlooper is a popular former two-term governor who repeatedly tied Gardner to Trump politically during the race.
Democrats have won every statewide race since Gardner’s election, with the exception of a board of regents position in 2016.
Several other Democrats were re-elected, including Dick Durbin in Illinois, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Mark Warner of Virginia and Jack Reed of Rhode Island.
Shelley Moore Capito became the first West Virginia Republican to be re-elected to the Senate in more than a century.
Capito defeated progressive Democrat Paula Jean Swearengin, a coal miner’s daughter who lacked statewide political experience.
Republicans made major gains when Capito won the 2014 Senate race, capturing all the state’s House seats for the first time since 1921.
Republican Bill Hagerty won an open seat in Tennessee, defeating Democrat Marquita Bradshaw in a race to fill the seat of retiring Republican Lamar Alexander.
Republicans have held both Senate seats in Tennessee since 1994.
In Arkansas, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton won re-election in a race that’s allowed him to lay the groundwork for a potential 2024 White House bid. The 43-year-old defeated Libertarian nominee Ricky Dale Harrington, a former prison chaplain who had never run for office.
The only Democrat who was running against Cotton dropped out hours after the filing deadline last year.
Republican Sen. Mike Rounds won a second term in South Dakota, defeating Democrat Dan Ahlers, a former state legislator.
The former governor won despite scaling back his campaign activity during the coronavirus pandemic, citing health concerns for his wife, who underwent treatment for cancer earlier this year.
Sasse wins despite Trump attacks
Nebraska Republican Ben Sasse was re-elected, beating Democrat Chris Janicek. Sasse, a former university president, benefited from an overwhelming Republican advantage despite his criticism of Trump.
Last month, Trump lashed back on Twitter, calling Sasse an “embarrassment” after the senator claimed the president “flirted with white supremacists,” mocks Christian evangelicals in private, and “kisses dictators’ butts.”
Janicek faced even longer odds after the Democratic Party pulled its support for him after he sent lewd text messages about a campaign staffer.
In Wyoming, Republican Cynthia Lummis, a former congresswoman, beat University of Wyoming ecology professor and climate activist Merav Ben-David to claim the seat held by Republican Sen. Mike Enzi, who is retiring after four terms.
Securing the Senate majority will be vital for the winner of the presidency. Senators confirm administration nominees, including the cabinet, and can propel or stall the White House agenda. With Republicans now controlling the chamber, 53-47, three or four seats will determine party control, depending on who wins the presidency, because the vice-president can break a tie.
A tight race
What started as a lopsided election cycle with Republicans defending 23 Senate seats, compared with 12 for Democrats, quickly became a starker referendum on the president and his party.
Some of the nation’s most well-known senators are in the fights of their political lives.
Stuck in Washington to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett a week before the election, senators quickly fanned out — some alongside the president — for last-ditch tours, often socially distanced in the pandemic, to shore up votes.
In North Carolina, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis is in a tough battle with Democrat Cal Cunningham in a widely watched race.
Arizona could see two Democratic senators for the first time since last century if former astronaut Mark Kelly — the husband of former congresswoman and gun control advocate Gabrielle Giffords — maintains his advantage over Republican Sen. Martha McSally for the seat once held by the late Republican John McCain.
In Kansas, Republican Roger Marshall and Democrat Barbara Bollier are battling for a seat previously held by Republican Pat Roberts, who announced he would retire from Congress.
When Johnny Isakson retired in Georgia, fellow Republican Kelly Loeffler was appointed by the governor to take the seat. She now faces her first electoral test, not just from Democrat Raphael Warnock, but also Republican congressman Doug Collins.
In a three-person race, there is a strong chance the top two candidates will vie in a runoff election on Jan. 5 if no candidate reaches 50 per cent of the vote, per Georgia’s rules.
That also applies to the other Georgia senatorial contest on Tuesday but that’s largely a two-person race — incumbent Sen. David Perdue, a Trump loyalist, and Democrat Jon Ossoff, who called Perdue a “crook” in a recent debate. Ossoff made the charge based on the fact that Perdue (as well as Loeffler) dumped stocks as the pandemic was beginning to hit the U.S., while downplaying the coronavirus publicly.
Here are other contests in the Senate that will be watched closely, with the incumbent candidate listed first:
- Iowa: Joni Ernst (R), Theresa Greenfield (D).
- Maine: Susan Collins (R), Sara Gideon (D).
- Michigan: Gary Peters (D), John James (R).
- Montana: Steve Daines (R), Steve Bullock (D).
Pelosi likely Speaker for another 2 years
In the House, Democrats pushed to seal control of the House for two more years.
Both parties’ operatives agreed that the Republican Party was mostly playing defence and would be fortunate to limit Democratic gains to modest single digits. Democrats control the House 232-197, with five open seats and one independent. It takes 218 seats to control the chamber.
“The president’s numbers have fallen off a bit in districts he won by double-digits, he’s not performing at that level in some places, and that’s creating a bit of a down-ballot drag,” said Republican strategist Liesl Hickey.
Should Democrat Joe Biden defeat Trump and Democrats win the Senate majority, the party would fully control the White House and Congress for only the second time since 1995. They last held the presidency, Senate and House in 2009 and 2010, the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
A larger Democratic majority would make it easier for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to pass party priorities that include expanding health-care coverage and creating jobs with new infrastructure projects. After a two-year run as one of her party’s most effective counterpoints to Trump, the 80-year-old Pelosi is all but certain to serve two more years running the House.
Pelosi said on an election day conference call with reporters that she’s “absolutely certain” that Democrats will “solidly hold” onto their House majority.
The election, she said, “is about nothing less than taking back the soul of America, whether our nation will follow the voices of fear or whether we will choose hope.”
As in 2018 when they grabbed House control, Democratic ads emphasized pledges to make health care more accessible, preserve coverage for pre-existing conditions and shield voters from Republicans out to terminate those requirements.
Many Republicans say they want to dismantle Obama’s health-care law while retaining its coverage for pre-existing conditions, but they’ve not presented a detailed proposal for doing that.
WATCH | States, voter blocs to watch:
The coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 230,000 Americans and is worsening in nearly every state, has only amplified the party’s focus on health care.
“This has pushed the fight to the health-care battlefield, and that’s a great place for us,” said Democratic consultant Ian Russell.
For Republicans, a failure to move significantly toward retaking the House — let alone losing seats — would trigger a reckoning about why they remain trapped in the chamber’s minority.
Another Republican disadvantage was that far more of their incumbents are already leaving Congress. Republicans were defending 35 open seats of lawmakers who didn’t seek reelection, resigned or lost party primaries. There were just 13 Democratic-held vacant seats caused by departures, including one death — Georgia congressman John Lewis, the civil rights hero.