Republicans are aiming to retain Senate control in Tuesday’s voting and renew their role as guardians of President Donald Trump’s conservative agenda, banking on a lopsided electoral map that imperils far more Democratic seats to offset Trump’s deeply divisive effect on voters.
Democrats’ longshot prospects for capturing a Senate majority were pinned on hopes of their supporters surging to the polls. Party stalwarts and some independents have been roused by revulsion toward Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric and policies, and his efforts to dismantle health care protections enacted under President Barack Obama, and by the #MeToo movement’s fury over sexual harassment.
The Democrats also had history on their side: 2002 was the only midterm election in the past three decades when the party holding the White House gained Senate seats.
Yet while Republicans command the Senate only narrowly, 51-49, Democrats faced daunting political math: They and their two independent allies were defending 26 of the 35 seats in play.
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“We’ve had a very tough political map right from the start,” said Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who heads Senate Democrats’ campaign organization. “So we see it as a sign of great strength that we’re talking about a path, even a narrow path, to a Senate Democratic majority.”
Around a dozen races from New Jersey to Nevada were seen as coin flips or at least competitive, prompting each side to spend hundreds of millions of dollars. It was widely expected that if the GOP padded its current two-seat majority, it would do so only modestly.
With Democrats considered a good bet to grab House control from Republicans, keeping the Senate was seen as crucial for the GOP’s goals of tax and spending cuts, trade, immigration restrictions, curbs on Obama’s health care law and judicial nominations. With so much at stake, Trump campaigned in over a dozen states with Senate elections since Labor Day, visiting some multiple times.
Democrats needed to gain two Senate seats to win a majority, assuming all their incumbents were re-elected, an unlikely outcome. But going into Election Day, their target list was limited: They had a plausible chance of winning GOP-held seats only in Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee and Texas.
The 26 seats Democrats were protecting included 10 in states that Trump won in the 2016 presidential race, five of those by an enormous 19 percentage points or more.
In those 10 Trump-won states, Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota seemed at greatest peril of losing. Other Democrats fighting for political survival included Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly and Bill Nelson of Florida. Nelson, 76, faced outgoing GOP Gov. Rick Scott, who poured over $50 million of his own fortune into his campaign, the most in the U.S.
In a sign that Trump dominance two years ago isn’t necessarily fatal for Democrats, their incumbents were expected to win re-election in six other states that he carried. Montana Sen. Jon Tester faced the toughest battle of that group, while moderate Joe Manchin, a former governor and brand name in West Virginia, was increasingly seen as safe in a state Trump took by 42 percentage points.
Trump’s racially tinged anti-immigrant appeals could hurt Republican candidates in swing states like Arizona and Nevada where college-educated voters could be decisive, but his rhetoric could help in deeply conservative areas.
Amid the recent rash of letter bombs and the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, Trump issued alarming and often unfounded warnings about caravans of migrants crossing Mexico toward the U.S., blaming Democrats, without evidence, for the threat he claimed they pose.
CEO Steven Law of the Senate Leadership Fund, a campaign organization aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., cited Republican voters’ concerns about “an open borders philosophy on the left, and a desire for greater immigration security.” Law said the caravans “made this immigration rhetoric visually real to people.”
Republicans said the Senate’s stormy confirmation fight over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh also energized GOP voters, as did concerns about protecting the party’s agenda.
In battlegrounds where Democrats were thought to have chances to gain seats, first-term Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen was in a close contest with Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, the only Republican seeking re-election in a state Democrat Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential race. Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a darling of progressives from coast to coast, raised record contributions but faced long odds of ousting tea party Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas.
Democrats also had opportunities because of the retirements of GOP Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Tennessee’s Bob Corker, both leaving Congress after accusing Trump of dishonesty and questioning his competence.
Republicans had another pickup opportunity in New Jersey, where Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who saw federal prosecutors drop bribery charges against him in January after a mistrial, faced wealthy pharmaceutical executive Bob Hugin.
Defeated GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney was poised to win a Senate seat from Utah. Potential 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls who seemed certain to win included Vermont independent Bernie Sanders and New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand.
At least one Senate race may not be decided Tuesday.
There was a strong chance Mississippi’s special election to complete the unexpired term of retired GOP Sen. Thad Cochran would go to a late November runoff. Republicans who dominate the state would probably prevail, but waiting for the outcome could extend the uncertainty about the Senate’s party breakdown — and perhaps which side has control.
The battle for the House of Representatives
The battle for the House is a fight to the finish, as Democrats try to flip the majority in a referendum on President Donald Trump and Republican control of Congress.
Midterm elections are typically difficult for the party in power, and GOP incumbents had been on defense in races across the country as control of the House turned into a signature contest of the season. Campaigns unfolded against a backdrop of jarring political imagery, overheated rhetoric and angry debates on immigration, health care and the role of Congress in overseeing the president.
As Election Day drew near, Democrats were increasingly confident, predicting they would pick up at least the 23 seats needed for the majority on the strength of voter enthusiasm, robust fundraising and unusually fresh candidates.
More women than ever were running, along with military veterans and minorities, many of them motivated by Trump’s rise. Yet Democrats tempered expectations for a “blue wave,” characterizing the fight for power as a block-by-block slog.
“The drumbeat you hear across America is people voting,” Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said as polls opened Tuesday. Individual races “will be close,” she said, but because of the “quality of our candidates” and emphasis on preserving health care, “I feel confident we will win.”
The outcome has serious stakes for the president. A Democratic majority in the House would almost certainly bring an onslaught of investigations into Trump’s businesses and his administration. Yet a Democratic House could also give Trump a rare chance for bipartisan deal-making as he gears up for re-election.
To stem Republican losses, Trump sprinted through mostly white regions of the country, interjecting dark and foreboding warnings about what Democratic power would mean for the nation.
Instead of trumpeting the GOP’s $1.5 trillion tax cuts, the debate was dominated by Trump’s dire prediction of “invasion” from the migrant caravan and what he called the “radical” agenda of speaker-in-waiting Pelosi.
GOP Whip Steve Scalise said the president’s rallies were building momentum and with the economy a selling point, he predicted his party would retain a slim majority.
“In the end, we hold the House because of the strong economy,” the Louisiana Republican told The Associated Press on the eve of Election Day.
For Democrats, the road to the 218-seat majority ran through two dozen suburban districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016 and through swaths of Trump country in the Rust Belt and heartland where voters backed the president. It was a deliberate strategy to expand the playing field to about 80 districts, stretching beyond college-educated voters in the suburbs into regions where the party has seen its fortunes fade.
How women and independent voters cast their ballots was likely to determine the outcome. Hundreds of millions were spent by the parties, supplemented by more money from outside groups, to frame the debate. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who advocates gun control, poured millions into House races for Democrats, offsetting the big-dollar spending to save Republicans by the Congressional Leadership Fund, which is aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Republicans still had advantages in some areas, giving them hope of retaining a slim majority. Trump had been tweeting support for specific GOP candidates, even as he acknowledged potential losses by emphasizing that his focus was on the Senate. Ballot counting could drag in tight races, leaving some races undecided long after Election Day.
But anti-incumbent fervor helped sweep House Democrats out of power in 2010, during President Barack Obama’s first term, and it threatened to hurt Republicans this year, dramatically remaking the map in key states from Pennsylvania to California.
Several districts on the East Coast with early poll closing times were among those watched Tuesday for signs of the electorate’s mood.
Rep. Barbara Comstock in the Virginia suburbs outside the nation’s capital was among the most endangered Republican incumbents, branded Barbara “Trumpstock” by Democrats. She was expected to lose to political newcomer Jennifer Wexton.
Outside Richmond, one-time tea party favorite Rep. Dave Brat faced an unusually strong challenge from Democrat Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA operative motivated to run for office after the GOP vote to gut the Affordable Care Act. Like other Democrats across the country, Spanberger emphasized protecting people with pre-existing conditions from being denied coverage or charged more by insurers.
Republicans were also being challenged outside Norfolk, where Rep. Scott Taylor faced Elaine Luria in the GOP stronghold. Both are Navy veterans.
In a suburban battleground in Atlanta, Republican Rep. Karen Handel won a costly special election earlier this cycle but faced an upstart challenge from Lucy McBath, whose 17-year-old son was shot and killed at a gas station.
Many of the Democratic candidates have military backgrounds and emerged as formidable challengers, particularly in red-state districts where Republicans have dominated. In another early race to watch, retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath took on three-term Rep. Andy Barr in the Kentucky district that extends beyond Lexington.
The GOP’s hold on the majority was complicated by an unusually large number of retirements as well as persistent infighting between conservatives and centrists, with much of the conflict centered on the question of allegiance to Trump.
Pennsylvania looked particularly daunting for Republicans after redistricting and a rash of retirements put several seats in play. Democratic favorite Conor Lamb stunned Washington by winning a special election in the state and faced Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus in a new district that was among four that could flip from red to blue. Other seats in the state were also considered in play.
In North Carolina, Republicans were struggling to hold onto a seat where Baptist minister Mark Harris ousted a GOP incumbent in the primary. Harris was facing a stiff challenge from Marine veteran and small-businessman Dan McCready.
Republicans had expected the GOP tax plan would be the cornerstone of their election agenda this year, but it became a potential liability in key states along the East and West coasts where residents could face higher tax bills because of limits on property and sales tax deductions.
The tax law has been particularly problematic for Republicans in New Jersey, where four of five GOP-held seats were being seriously contested. Democrat Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor, was favored for a suburban Newark seat that became open after the sudden retirement of the powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee. An open seat that included Atlantic City was also ripe for Democratic pickup by state lawmaker Jeff Van Drew after the GOP campaign committee abandoned Republican Seth Grossman over racially charged comments.
The committee also distanced itself from eight-term Rep. Steve King of Iowa after racial remarks, and his seat was unexpectedly contested in the final week of the campaign.
The fight for control of the House could come down to a handful of seats out West, particularly in California, where the GOP’s one-time stronghold of Orange County voted for Clinton in 2016.
Four GOP seats in Orange County, including two where the incumbent Republicans retired, were in play, along with three other seats to the north beyond Los Angeles and into the Central Valley.
“We always knew these races are going to be close,” said Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, co-chair of House Democrats’ recruitment efforts. “It’s just a very robust class of candidates that really reflects who we are as a country.”