Republicans moved closer to cementing a more conservative majority in the Senate Tuesday with victories in the crucial battlegrounds of Indiana and Tennessee.
The wins by Indiana businessman Mike Braun and Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, two staunch allies of President Donald Trump, came over centrist Democrats in races that drew tens of millions of dollars in spending from both parties.
Elsewhere, close races were being decided in a national contest that held implications for coming battles over the federal judiciary, trade, health care, government spending and immigration. It also held significance for Trump – not only for his agenda, but because his administration could face an onslaught of investigations beginning next year. Some Democrats have even raised the possibility of impeachment.
With the map in their favor, Republicans – who currently control both chambers of Congress – looked to preserve and possibly expand their 51-49 advantage in the Senate. Analysts across the political spectrum had favored them to remain in power, even as they said Democrats could wrest control of the House.
“I see two things,” said Jim Manley, a former top Democratic Senate aide, looking ahead. “A president unwilling to tone down his rhetoric, along with the Senate Republicans unwilling to break with him.”
Some of the most closely-watched Senate races pitted centrist Democrats against conservative Republicans who ardently embraced Trump. Contests in Missouri, North Dakota, Indiana, West Virginia and Tennessee fell into this category.
Even before Tuesday’s vote, Senate Republicans were poised for a more pro-Trump roster next year. Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who have frequently voiced concerns about Trump’s tone and his governing philosophy, are retiring. John McCain, a vocal Trump critic, passed away in August.
Democrats tried to defeat candidates who marched in lockstep with Trump by running on preserving health-care protections and other so-called “kitchen table” issues. That contrast was put to the test all across the country.
In North Dakota, Republicans were confident heading into the election that Rep. Kevin Cramer would defeat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the most vulnerable Democratic senator. A Cramer win would mean that one of the chamber’s few moderate Democrats would be replaced by a close ally of Trump.
To the east in Missouri, state Attorney General Josh Hawley, R, sought to oust Sen. Claire McCaskill, D, in a race with similar dynamics. Hawley, like Cramer, championed Trump’s views on trade, even as he faced criticism that farmers in his state would suffer under the president’s tariffs.
Two states over in Indiana, Braun won as an outsider eager to shake up Washington.
One wildcard next year is Mitt Romney. The former Republican presidential nominee won the seat of retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch, R. Romney has criticized Trump, including in a speech opposing his candidacy in 2016. But lately, he has been less openly hostile to the president.
Democrats also looked to gain a pair of seats in the Sun Belt, with Rep. Jacky Rosen, D, trying to unseat Sen. Dean Heller, R, a onetime Trump critic who warmed up to the president during the campaign.
In Arizona, Democratic leaders were hopeful that Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a former Green Party activist who ran as moderate Democrat, would win Flake’s seat. Her opponent was Rep. Martha McSally, a onetime Trump critic who dialed down her hostility in the campaign.
Florida, another state with a diverse population, was the site of the expensive and pivotal showdown between Sen. Bill Nelson, D, and Gov. Rick Scott, R. Scott, unlike most other top Senate candidates, distanced himself from the president in the campaign.
Many Democratic Senate contenders have railed against Trump’s tariffs. In Tennessee, former Gov. Phil Bredesen, who lost to Blackburn, cast the tariffs as harmful to the state’s automobile, farming and whiskey industries.
Senate Democrats were hoping to hold on to some key seats. They were defending 26 of the 35 seats on the ballot, including 10 in states Trump won.
Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia held onto his seat. Manchin was the only Democrat to vote for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. He has touted areas of cooperation with the president, and would be continue to be a top Republican target for crossover support in divisive battles.
Democrats were hopeful Jon Tester, D-Mont., would keep his seat, despite Trump holding a rally in his state in the final stage of the campaign.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has held off Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D, the AP projects, after a closely watched and unexpectedly tight race.
Cruz had clashed sharply with Trump in the 2016 primary but then lined up squarely behind him in his campaign against O’Rourke, a challenger who achieved rock star status on the left. The president held a rally in Texas with Cruz in October.
The Senate Republican agenda is not expected to be nearly as ambitious as the past two years, when the GOP controlled the federal government following Trump’s surprise win. A Democratic House takeover would likely be a major impediment to reaching an agreement on most big issues, should Republicans retain the Senate.
Even in that scenario, the Senate will still have to navigate some high-stakes battles. The Trump administration is preparing for a massive, post-midterm shakeup, which could trigger nominations for attorney general and other cabinet posts the Senate would be tasked with confirming in the months ahead.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has made confirming federal judges a top priority. That is a task carried out by the Senate alone, and McConnell’s allies said that will continue to be a focal point in the next Congress if Republicans retain control of the chamber.
“I think that the one thing that becomes really important, both to the administration and Senate Republicans, is to continue to be in the personnel business,” said Josh Holmes, a former McConnell chief of staff and one of his closest confidants. “I think the remaking the judiciary is high on the agenda, no matter what.”
One race both parties were not expecting to conclude on Tuesday was in Mississippi. The special election to succeed retired Republican Thad Cochran was could be headed to a runoff on Nov. 27.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Sean Sullivan