Republicans retained their majority in the Senate on Tuesday after a string of upset victories in key states and gave the GOP sweeping powers to advance President-elect Donald Trump’s agenda, including his appointments to the Supreme Court.
With a GOP House majority also secure, Republicans now have full control of the White House and Congress after an election season that began with their party facing long odds because of the large number of Senate seats they had to defend. Republicans entered Election Day expecting to fight head winds in several states because of Trump’s controversial candidacy.
But Trump overwhelmed Democrat Hillary Clinton in several critical states, giving the GOP an unexpected margin of victory.
Trump provided coattails that gave the GOP a major win that could allow him an easier path toward confirming Supreme Court justices and Cabinet nominees, as well as fashioning long-sought legislation to overturn signature achievements of the Obama administration, particularly the Affordable Care Act.
Republicans defended their Senate seats in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, states that once looked like some of their toughest terrain.
Democrats picked up a seat in Illinois, where Rep. Tammy Duckworth unseated Sen. Mark Kirk.
The stakes for Senate control, always critical to a new administration, became even higher in February when Justice Antonin Scalia died, leaving the Supreme Court evenly divided between the liberal and conservative blocs. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, for the seat and said that the next president should make the pick. The result is that whichever party controls the Senate in the next Congress will wield enormous influence over the confirmation process.
With 54 members in the GOP caucus, McConnell’s side could afford to lose only three seats and retain the majority outright. Shortly after 1 a.m. Wednesday, all but one contested race had been called and only Illinois had tilted in the Democrats’ favor – leaving the Democrats shy of any chance at the majority.
Two dozen Republicans were up for reelection, while Democrats defended just 10 seats, and only one Democratic seat seemed truly endangered: that of retiring Minority Leader Harry M. Reid, D-Nev.
Much of 2016 unfolded like a chess match between McConnell and Reid’s soon-to-be successor, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., each trying to outmaneuver the other through recruiting the right candidates and raising enormous sums of money to contest the races.
The resulting campaigns, from the far northeastern corners of New Hampshire to the southwestern reaches of Nevada, became a more than $800 million battle waged across the nation through advertising and complicated political machinations that more resembled smaller-scale presidential campaigns.
Pennsylvania, for example, provided the new mark for the most expensive individual Senate race in history, with more than $140 million spent by the candidates, national party committees and super PACs competing to turn votes among the nearly 6 million people who were expected to go to the polls.
According to one estimate, New Hampshire wasn’t far behind, with about $125 million spent there – in a state where only about 800,000 were expected to vote.
Early Wednesday, with more than 90 percent of the vote in, New Hampshire Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan and Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte traded the lead back and forth with each new precinct reporting, neither getting ahead by much more than 1,000 votes out of nearly 700,000 cast. And in Pennsylvania, Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey was declared the winner over Democrat Katie McGinty in a come-from-behind victory that sealed the majority.
The focal point of the Senate fight was seven freshman Republicans running for reelection after being swept into office during the 2010 midterm elections fueled by the staunchly conservative tea-party activists who opposed the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
Those seven, mostly from Midwestern states, ran their campaigns this year in a significantly different political environment because they came from large states where turnout was much higher than it was six years ago because their reelection bids coincided with this year’s presidential election.
The most successful was Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, originally thought to be one of the three most endangered GOP incumbents who turned around his campaign through an aggressive fundraising effort and built up an image of someone focused closely on local issues such as the heroin epidemic plaguing his state. He also pummeled Democratic former governor Ted Strickland as ineffective during his term, and by Labor Day Democrats who abandoned the race because Portman had pulled so far ahead.
Strickland conceded moments after polls closed in Ohio.
The Republicans also got a major boost with the victory of Rep. Todd C. Young of Indiana. He came from behind to defeat former senator Evan Bayh, who had been a prized Schumer recruit late in the political season. Young tapped into the anti-Washington mood and portrayed Bayh as a corporate influencer in the years after he left the Senate in 2011.
Other victorious Republicans included a pair of former presidential contenders, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Marco Rubio of Florida, both of whom were at times humiliated by Trump during the primary campaign, left that race and returned home to run for reelection. Paul won easily, and Rubio – who initially said he would not seek a second term – breathed life into Republican hopes for holding the majority after McConnell persuaded him to run again.
Rubio won his race against Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy by 52 percent to 44 percent, with 99 percent of the vote tallied, according to the Associated Press.
Along with Portman’s easy victory in Ohio, those two races gave Republicans the ability to divert financial resources to other key battlegrounds.
“I think in everyone’s budgets a year ago, that was going to be the biggest line item next to maybe Florida. Instead, Portman did a great job of raising money. He did a great job of getting early to define Strickland, who turned out probably to be the worst candidate the Democrats could have had,” said Carl Forti, a senior strategist for the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with McConnell.
That fund spent more than $87 million on advertising in the battleground Senate races, according to its own estimate, far more than any other party committee or super PAC engaged in the fight for the Senate.
A large chunk of that money came from mega-rich donors who are traditional conservatives and were turned off by Trump’s nativist campaign, his opposition to trade deals and other longtime business-friendly positions espoused by past Republican presidential nominees.
Kirk faced the most difficult road running in a state that breaks so sharply for Democratic presidential candidates that the national GOP never really competed there. Duckworth, a double amputee who served in the Iraq War, easily defeated Kirk and will become the first female veteran who regularly uses a wheelchair to serve in the Senate.
Despite the crushing defeat, the Democrats did elect two other female senators of historic note: Kamala Harris of California, who will become only the second elected African American woman to serve in the Senate, and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada will become the first Latina elected to the Senate.
But Democrats came up short in several other key races where Trump performed much stronger than anticipated. In Wisconsin, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson won his rematch against Democrat Russell Feingold, who had served three Senate terms until losing to Johnson six years ago. Johnson struck a conservative pose for most of his term and seemed out of step with his state’s slightly Democratic lean during presidential years, but in the final two weeks of the race, he showed some signs of rebounding, and national resources poured in.
In North Carolina, Republican Sen. Richard Burr ran almost exactly side by side with Trump, as both won the Tar Heel State with about 51 percent of the vote.
And in Missouri, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt was declared the winner over Democrat Jason Kander.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Paul Kane