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Republicans have edge to keep Senate, and block Biden if he wins

Senator Susan Collins in a red down jacket gestures with both hands in excitement while speaking at a lectern
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) speaks Wednesday in Bangor after winning reelection.
(Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press)

Republicans brushed back challengers in some of the most competitive Senate contests, bolstering the party’s hopes of retaining control of the chamber and erecting a powerful firewall against a potential Joe Biden administration.

As of Wednesday night, the Senate map stood at 48 Republicans and 48 Democrats, with four races yet to be called. Republican senators were ahead in North Carolina and Alaska and races for both Republican-held seats in Georgia were undecided. Democratic Sen. Gary Peters was reelected to his seat in Michigan in a race called Wednesday night.

Further disappointing Democrats, and surprising even many Republicans, the GOP was poised to cut into the Democratic majority in the House. Democrats had been widely expected to add to their ranks, based on their advantages in polls and fundraising.

In the Senate, the best outcome Democrats can hope for at this point — assuming North Carolina and Alaska stay in GOP hands — is to push both of the Georgia races into Jan. 5 runoffs. That would set the Senate at 50 Republicans and 48 Democrats with two runoffs that could flip control of the chamber to Democrats if Biden wins the presidency. With those kinds of stakes, dual contests in Georgia would prompt a flood of campaign spending and attention for a bruising battle.

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One of the Georgia contests, involving appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, was already heading to a runoff. In the other, Republican Sen. David Perdue hoped to hang onto his slight lead, just over the 50% vote threshold, to avoid being forced into a second runoff.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who had been painted by Democrats as too close to President Trump, staged a stunning comeback to win reelection in Maine. Republican Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa, Steve Daines of Montana and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina were similarly able to withstand remarkably well-funded Democratic challenges. Democrats so far managed to pick up two seats, in Colorado and Arizona, and lost one held by Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama.

“I don’t know whether I’m going to be the defensive coordinator or the offensive coordinator, as we speak,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who survived his own reelection race, told reporters in Kentucky before Maine’s contest was called.

Cognizant of the power Republicans will hold if they are able to keep control of the Senate, Democrats were downright mournful over their losses.

After lining up a strong candidates to run in a year when the Senate map favored their party, Democrats managed to also amass an unprecedented financial advantage, fueled by small-dollar donors. Democrats were left wondering what went wrong, and they will likely confront party leaders in both the House and Senate with their questions.

“I was hoping that we would sweep to victory with a number of Senate wins,” Democratic Sen.-elect John Hickenlooper, who unseated Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in Colorado, said on MSNBC. “We’re still cautiously optimistic, but it’s not the level of excitement I was hoping to wake up to.”

If Biden is elected and the Senate stays in Republican control, he would be the first Democratic president since Grover Cleveland in 1885 to begin his presidency without Democratic control of both the House and Senate. In that case, a Senate Republican majority — even one held perilously together by a vote or two — would make McConnell the senior-most Republican in Washington and give him extraordinary power to determine the success of the Biden administration.

Election experts quickly corrected the president over his fraud claims, and some Republicans noted that counting all voters’ ballots was the norm.

Democrats’ ambitious hopes for a climate plan, a healthcare bill, a new COVID-19 economic relief measure and more would need approval from Senate Republicans. Approval of Cabinet appointees, federal judges and Supreme Court justices would rest on getting McConnell to agree to bring them up for a vote and persuading some Republicans to vote to confirm them.

In all likelihood, a Democratic White House would have to scale back any proposals to get buy-in from Republicans. Progressives once under consideration to be Cabinet appointees could well be passed over for more moderate nominees.

Whether the next two years of such divided government would be gridlock is likely to rest on the relationship between Biden and McConnell, two longtime Senate colleagues who together brokered compromises between Congress and the White House during the Obama administration. Dealing with a Republican-controlled Senate would daily test Biden’s campaign boasts about his ability to work across the aisle and cut deals.

McConnell would have significant leverage. With a midterm election just two years away, however, Republicans might well see little reason to compromise. A Republican majority also would keep its power to investigate and to subpoena documents and officials.

In the House, Democrats had high hopes of padding their majority. But in a surprise, Republicans were able to flip six Democratic-held seats, with more expected as additional races are called. Democratic wins so far were limited to two assured pickups created by court-ordered redistricting in North Carolina.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who is likely to be reelected to her position, could end up leading the smallest majority of any in her four terms as the House leader, which could make it more difficult to build voting coalitions.

Five House freshmen from her party lost in some of the most conservative Democratic-held districts in the country — all of which Trump won in 2016 by at least 3 percentage points. After years of trying, Republicans also took down Minnesota Rep. Collin C. Peterson, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and the most conservative Democrat in the House.

Even Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who leads the House Democratic campaign arm and on Monday was boasting of the potential victories to come Tuesday, found herself in a perilously close race. She was ahead by 2 percentage points Wednesday evening, but her race had not yet been called.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), referring to the political forecasts favoring Democrats, told reporters, “They were all wrong.”

Republicans had other good news Tuesday: Every Republican who flipped a Democratic seat is a woman, person of color or a veteran, adding much-needed diversity to their ranks.

“We expanded this party that reflects America, that looks like America,” McCarthy said.

Republicans will have at least five newly elected women next year — a figure that could grow to 10 and would nearly double the 13 Republican women in the House now. Still, that would be a fraction of the number of Democratic women, currently 88.

Democrats added diversity to their ranks as well. Ritchie Torres and Mondaire Jones, both of New York, are expected to become the first openly gay Black members of Congress. Both replace retiring Democrats. Congress currently has nine openly LGBTQ members.

Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.


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