Democrats’ chances of retaking the Senate majority were slipping away early Wednesday as Republicans hung onto key seats in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Indiana and Florida. Democrats kept their seat in Nevada, where Catherine Cortez Masto’s win will make her the first Latina US senator.
Democrats also grabbed a Republican-held seat in Illinois, but the outcome in Wisconsin was a surprise as both parties had expected it to flip for the Democrats. Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson’s victory over former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold forecast a grim night for the Democrats, who could be consigned to minority status on Capitol Hill for years to come.
Races in GOP-held Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Missouri remained too close to call as Republicans defended a slim 54-46 majority in an unpredictable election year. But Democrats would have to win all of those, and could then only claim majority status if Democrat Hillary Clinton wins the White House. The vice president casts tie-breaking votes in a 50-50 Senate.
The outcome in Nevada was a victory for Minority Leader Harry Reid, whose retirement after five terms created a vacancy. Reid maneuvered to fill it with his hand-picked successor, Cortez Masto, Nevada’s former attorney general who spoke often of her family’s immigrant roots in a state with heavy Latino turnout.
Cortez Masto beat Republican Rep. Joe Heck, who struggled with sharing the ticket with Donald Trump, first endorsing and then un-endorsing Trump to the disgust of some GOP voters.
As the night wore on Democratic operatives struggled to explain why their optimistic assessments of retaking Senate control were so mistaken. Some were blaming FBI Director James Comey’s bombshell announcement that he was reviewing a new batch of emails connected with Clinton for breathing life into GOP campaigns.
Some Republicans, too, had feared they would have a bad night Tuesday, and were taken by surprise as they racked up win after win.
In North Carolina, Democrats had high hopes of unseating entrenched GOP incumbent Sen. Richard Burr, who infuriated even his own party with his laidback campaign style. But in the end he had little trouble holding off a challenge from Democrat Deborah Ross, a former state legislator and director of the North Carolina ACLU.
In Indiana, GOP Rep. Todd Young beat former Democratic senator and governor Evan Bayh, who mounted a much-ballyhooed comeback bid, but wilted under scrutiny.
And in Florida, GOP Sen. Marco Rubio beat Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, giving Rubio a platform from which he could mount another bid for president in 2020. The outcome was not unexpected since Murphy had been abandoned by his own party in the final weeks of the campaign.
In Arizona, meanwhile, GOP Sen. John McCain, at age 80, won his sixth term in quite possibly his final campaign. The 2008 GOP presidential nominee was re-elected without much difficulty despite early predictions of a competitive race, and struck a reflective note ahead of the outcome.
“While as Yogi Berra said, `I hate to make predictions, especially about the future,’ I’m not sure how many more I have in me,” McCain said.
Democrats’ only pick-up so far came in Illinois, where GOP Sen. Mark Kirk had long been considered the most endangered Republican incumbent. Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a double-amputee Iraq war veteran, ousted Kirk.
In New York, Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democrats’ leader-in-waiting for a new Congress, easily won re-election. But the results suggested he would be leading a Senate minority when he replaces Reid in the leader’s role.
GOP incumbents around the country had faced energized Democratic challengers trying to oust them in costly and caustic battles shadowed every step of the way by the polarizing presidential race between Clinton and Trump.
The GOP retook the majority just two years ago. And even though control of the Senate is likely to be razor-thin whichever party ends up on top, the advantages of being in the majority are significant. The controlling party holds the committee chairmanships, sets the legislative agenda and runs investigations. First up is likely to be a nominee to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court.
Throughout the campaign the Senate races provided moments of drama, not least as GOP candidates grappled with sharing a ticket with Trump. That tripped up Sen. Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire after she asserted at one point that Trump could “absolutely” be a role model for the nation’s youth, then backtracked.
In Nevada, Heck ended the campaign refusing to say whether or not he’d vote for Trump. Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, too, kept voters in suspense until the eleventh hour before disclosing late Tuesday that he voted for Trump.