Republicans, buoyed by an unexpectedly strong performance by President Donald Trump in key battlegrounds, grew increasingly confident Wednesday that they could maintain narrow control of the Senate and make a considerable dent in the size of the Democrats’ House majority.
Their chances in the Senate were vastly improved by the come-from-behind victory of Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a New England centrist largely written off as a loss before Election Day. Collins’ resounding performance in a state also carried by former Vice President Joe Biden defied national trends and she avoided a protracted fight involving the state’s ranked-choice voting system by clearing a 50% threshold of support.
Democrats, who had entered the night bullish about their chances, had flipped just two seats, in Colorado and Arizona. And with the loss of Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., they were still two or three seats short of the gains they would need to take control of the chamber.
Their hopes increasingly rested on Georgia, where at least one race was headed for a January runoff with a Democrat as front-runner. Votes in the state’s other contest were still being counted, but Democrats were hopeful that Sen. David Perdue, a Republican, would have to contend with a runoff as well.
If they prove successful, it would provide Democrats with a shot at fighting Republicans to a draw for control of the Senate in a bloody and expensive rematch just two weeks before Inauguration Day. Two Democratic victories there would split the Senate, 50-50, and if Biden prevailed, his vice president, Kamala Harris, could cast tiebreaking votes to give Democrats de facto control.
Republicans had scored crucial Senate victories in Iowa, Montana, South Carolina and Texas, where Democratic challengers fell well short of expectations despite spending record-breaking sums. They likewise believed they were strongly positioned to hold on in North Carolina as well, where Sen. Thom Tillis was considered one of the party’s most endangered senators this year, although the race was still too close to call with mail-in ballots streaming in.
“If my math is correct, if we win in North Carolina and Maine, I am still the offensive coordinator,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Wednesday, referring to his position as majority leader.
The fight carried heavy consequences for whoever wins the White House, given that the Senate holds sway over judicial nominations and the legislative agenda, with the power to advance or frustrate a president’s plans. Even as they continued to game out possibilities, Democrats emerged Wednesday decidedly downcast.
“I was hoping we would sweep to victory with a number of Senate wins,” John Hickenlooper, Colorado’s former Democratic governor who defeated Sen. Cory Gardner, said on MSNBC. “You know we were cautiously optimistic, but it’s not the level of excitement I was hoping to wake up to.”
In the House, Democrats were on track to secure the 218 seats needed to maintain the majority they established in 2018. But their predictions of a second consecutive wave powered by antipathy for Trump had been dashed by Wednesday morning. Instead, Democrats had lost a handful of historically more conservative rural and suburban seats in Oklahoma, South Carolina, New Mexico and Florida and were praying that a late deluge of mail-in votes would minimize further loses in places they once thought safe.
Republicans’ run of victories also promised to replenish somewhat the number of women in their conference, which was decimated in Democrats’ 2018 sweep.
“I’ve heard for months from the pollsters and the media about how Republicans were going to lose more seats and cling to shrinking coalitions,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, said at an upbeat news briefing in Washington promoting the new women in his conference. “We expanded this party that reflects America and looks like America.”
The accumulating results suggested that McCarthy could wield considerably more leverage in the House next term, particularly if Republicans hold the Senate. He quickly announced a run for minority leader and was expected to consolidate support. A smaller Democratic majority thinned of some moderates could also empower the party’s progressive wing to exercise more force.
In a letter to Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi conceded it had been “a challenging election” but tried to put a positive spin on a clearly disappointing outcome. She predicted victory for Biden and said House Democrats were positioned to work with him “to deliver” health care changes, anti-corruption legislation and “green infrastructure” — although a Republican-controlled Senate would have very little interest in making that possible.
Privately, House Democrats who survived were licking their wounds and contemplating whether leadership changes needed to be made at the party’s campaign committee. The losses stung.In South Carolina, first-term Rep. Joe Cunningham, a Democrat, was defeated by Nancy Mace, the first woman to graduate from the Citadel, in his Charleston-based district. With Trump making significant inroads among Cuban Americans in Miami, two other Democratic freshmen were ousted by Republicans: Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell lost to Mayor Carlos Gimenez of Miami, and Rep. Donna Shalala was defeated by Maria Elvira Salazar, a former television anchor.
In the increasingly conservative rural Midwest, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the Democrat who oversees the Agriculture Committee and has served in the House for three decades, was also toppled.
The battle for the Senate was being waged on even friendlier turf for Republicans. Although they were defending 23 states, compared with just 12 for Democrats, almost all of them were places that Trump carried in 2016.
Democrats still managed to win in Colorado, a rare liberal-leaning state occupied by a Republican, and Arizona, where Mark Kelly, a former astronaut, beat Sen. Martha McSally, handing her a second Senate defeat in two years. They also narrowly hung on in Michigan, where Sen. Gary Peters beat John James, a Black Iraq war veteran and a Republican.
But Tommy Tuberville, the former Auburn football coach, easily won back deeply conservative Alabama from Sen. Doug Jones. In Iowa, Sen. Joni Ernst’s win over Theresa Greenfield, a Democrat with roots in the state’s farming community, scuttled Democrats’ hopes for a key pickup. And in Montana, Steve Daines beat back a challenge from the state’s popular Democratic governor, Steve Bullock.
In North Carolina, Sen. Thom Tillis, had opened a lead of nearly 100,000 votes early Wednesday against Cal Cunningham, a Democrat and Iraq War veteran who had led in polls for much of the year. But the state accepts mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day until Nov. 12, making a final call premature.Among all the victories for Senate Republicans, Collins’ stood out as the most remarkable. Facing an onslaught of liberal outrage over her 2018 vote to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court amid accusations of sexual assault, she trailed the Democrat, Sara Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, in the race’s closing weeks.
In the end, she proved she was one of the only senators in the country still able to significantly outrun the top of the ticket, winning her fifth term even as Trump lost badly in Maine to Biden.
Still, already eying a 2022 Senate election on more difficult turf for Republicans, McConnell suggested there were reasons for the party to worry as well.
Speaking to reporters after his own commanding victory in Kentucky, he said Republicans had pressing work to do to win back the support of women and college-educated voters, as well as to bolster their fundraising apparatus, which has trailed Democrats’ juggernaut, ActBlue.
“I am disturbed by the loss of support in the suburbs nationwide,” McConnell said.
Democrats still remained hopeful about the races in Georgia. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, was headed for a January runoff against Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the appointed Republican, in a special election to replace Sen. Johnny Isakson, who retired in late 2019, citing health problems. Jon Ossoff, a 33-year-old documentary filmmaker, was in a tight race to unseat Perdue, which could also end up in a runoff if neither cleared the 50% threshold required under Georgia law to win outright.
Democrats had one other outstanding target, Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska, but it was considered a stretch.