Democrats Battle for Senate Control as They Maintain Grip on House Majority

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Democrats were on track early Wednesday to maintain a firm grip on the House, but their path to seizing the Senate majority from Republicans was rapidly narrowing as the two parties continued to fight for control of the levers of power in Congress with the fate of the presidency still uncertain.

Partial results suggested that House Democrats were running strong in many of the competitive districts they swept up in 2018, but they were struggling to make further inroads into the Republican-leaning suburbs, where they had expected a surge powered by discontent with President Trump. Instead, as votes continued to be counted, Republicans were newly optimistic they could claw back seats, particularly in rural areas and traditionally conservative strongholds in places like Oklahoma City and Staten Island.



Election 2020: The Votes Are In. Now Comes the Wait.

After a smooth and largely uneventful Election Day, Americans are now waiting for results in key states. Both major-party presidential candidates addressed supporters overnight and foreshadowed a wait — and, potentially, a fight.

[cheering] [truck honking] [cars honking] “Move back! Move back!” “… can’t stop the revolution!” “You can’t stop the revolution!” [cars honking] “We knew this was going to go long. But look, we feel good about where we are. [cheering] We really do. [cheering and cars honking] I’m here to tell you tonight we believe we’re on track to win this election.” “Yes.” [cheering and cars honking] “We knew because of the unprecedented early vote and the mail-in vote that it’s going to take a while. We’re going to have to be patient until we — the hard work of tallying the votes is finished. And it ain’t over till every vote is counted.” [cheering] “Thank you. So we’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at 4 o’clock in the morning and add them to the list, OK? [clapping] It’s, it’s a very sad — it’s a very sad moment. To me, this is a very sad moment. And we will win this.” “My fellow Kentuckians, you’ve given me the honor of a lifetime. I’ll always be grateful.” “And just as I have for the last six years, I will spend the next six years working every single day to live up to the honor that you have given me as your United States senator.” “It’s time to put the poisonous politics of this era behind us and come together to move forward.” “Here’s the message I got: People like what I’m doing, and I’m going to keep doing it.” [cheering] [laughs] “I have — came down so early that I was the first person in line to vote.” “I know people who’ve passed away from the virus. We need to get our arms around it, get a vaccine.” “It’s Election Day, so I wanted to come here to vote today, on Election Day.” [cheering] “It’s good to be home.” [cheering] [cars honking] “I feel very good. After doing that many rallies, the voice gets a little bit choppy, I think. [crowd laughs] God did not design — design it for that much, but it, you know, look, we did a lot of them.” [applause] “It’s going to be a big red wave coming in today. Hopefully, Donald Trump wins.” “I’m 18 and I finally voted for the first time, so —” “Today is a day that many of us have been waiting for for four years. Who would have known we were this patient?” [cheering] “I really feel that this election is very important, very vital to the country.”

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After a smooth and largely uneventful Election Day, Americans are now waiting for results in key states. Both major-party presidential candidates addressed supporters overnight and foreshadowed a wait — and, potentially, a fight.CreditCredit…Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

The Senate outcome rested on a handful of states where Democrats still hoped to topple incumbent Republicans, but their pickup opportunities were dwindling fast on an unusually large battleground that stretched from Maine to Alaska and could tilt with the presidential results. At stake was the ability of the next president to fill his cabinet, appoint judges and pursue his agenda, and the two parties had waged a pitched battle to the end, pummeling voters with advertising backed by record sums of money, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.

Republicans scored crucial wins in Iowa, Alabama and Montana, and were running stronger than expected in North Carolina and Maine, where the results were still too close to call early Wednesday morning.

Democrats needed a net gain of three or four seats to take Senate control, depending on whether former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee, won the presidency, which would allow his vice president, Kamala Harris, to cast tiebreaking votes.

They flipped seats in Colorado, where John Hickenlooper, the former Democratic governor, easily defeated Senator Cory Gardner, and in Arizona, where Mark Kelly, a former astronaut, beat Senator Martha McSally.

But Tommy Tuberville, the former Auburn football coach, easily won back deep-red Alabama from Senator Doug Jones. In Iowa, the victory by Senator Joni Ernst 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.

ImageMark Kelly speaking with reporters and supporters at the Hotel Congress in Tucson, Ariz.
Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

That left both sides closely watching Maine, North Carolina and Georgia, where partial returns showed exceedingly tight races between Republican incumbents and their Democratic challengers.

Earlier, Republicans had breathed a sigh of relief when Senator John Cornyn was declared the winner in Texas, despite a record turnout, and again when Senator Lindsey Graham, a close ally of Mr. Trump’s, won re-election in South Carolina after a tougher-than-expected race. In Kentucky, Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Republican, secured a seventh term, though it was unclear whether he would remain majority leader.

“Tonight, Kentuckians said, ‘We’re not finished yet,’” Mr. McConnell told supporters in Louisville. “Kentucky wants more of the policies that built the best economy in our nation’s modern history — not socialism.”

At least one Senate race taking place in Georgia, an unexpectedly competitive battleground this year, was headed for a winner-takes-all January runoff that could decide the balance of the Senate only weeks before Inauguration Day if Tuesday’s contests did not. The state’s other race could also end up in a runoff, but it was too early to be certain.

In the fight for the House, Democrats began the night more clearly on the offensive, bolstered by a stunning fund-raising advantage, Republican recruitment failures and Mr. Trump’s eroding support in America’s cities and suburbs. Two years after gaining 41 seats to reclaim the majority, Democrats were trying to push into suburban districts that Republicans had not lost in decades around St. Louis, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Phoenix, Omaha and even once ruby-red parts of Texas.

But while strategists in both parties had said a second blue wave could wash out 10 to 20 Republicans, by Wednesday morning, returns indicated that no such sweep had materialized. A handful of Republican incumbents in newly competitive suburban districts held onto their seats, and some Democrats who had been confident of victories were vanquished, including first-term Representative Joe Cunningham, who was defeated by Nancy Mace, the first woman to graduate from the Citadel, in his Charleston-based district.

At the same time, Democrats fell short of snatching victories in solidly red districts that the party had hoped to make competitive, and lost more ground in the increasingly conservative rural Midwest, with the defeat of Representative Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, the chairman of the Agriculture Committee who served three decades in Congress.

Credit…Erik Branch for The New York Times

“We have held the House and now, when — after all the votes are counted, we’ll see how much better we will do than that,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday night. But she also tried to play down Democrats’ lackluster performance.

“It’s not just about the quantity,” she added. “It’s about the quality of leadership that they provide for our country.”

Republicans began the cycle hoping to grab onto Mr. Trump’s coattails and a booming economy to wrest back the 30 or so districts he won in 2016 that Democrats claimed two years later. But those hopes were dashed by the pandemic, which has left the economy in tatters and the nation counting more than 230,000 deaths to date.

Still, they found some unexpected bright spots on Tuesday night. With Mr. Trump making significant inroads among Cuban-Americans in Miami, Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a first-term Democrat, was edged out by Carlos Gimenez, the Miami mayor, and Representative Donna E. Shalala lost to Maria Elvira Salazar, a former television anchor.

Republican veterans Ann Wagner of Missouri, Steve Chabot of Ohio and Rodney Davis of Illinois also held off stiff challenges, and Republicans were on track for better-than-expected result in a handful of Texas House races where Democrats saw pickup opportunities.

The battle for the Senate was being waged on even friendlier turf for Republicans. Though they were defending 23 states, compared with just 12 for Democrats, almost all of them were places that Mr. Trump carried in 2016 — creating a real possibility that voters could render a split decision on Tuesday, dividing power between the White House and Senate.

For the second election season in a row, Democrats ran with an almost singular focus on health care, blistering Republicans for their campaign to overturn the Affordable Care Act. The law, and its protections of pre-existing conditions, took on further resonance in the face of a public health crisis unlike any the nation has seen in generations and the confirmation just a week before Election Day of a Supreme Court justice, Amy Coney Barrett, who Democrats argued would strike down the law.

In race after race, Republicans’ chances appeared to hinge on the unexpected strength of Mr. Trump, a polarizing leader who has enraptured their core supporters even as his inflammatory style and unorthodox policy positions have frustrated them and alienated crucial voting blocs. A few Republicans, like Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who was battling for political survival in the race of her career, were willing to wag their fingers at the president, but most knew they could not risk his ire, or the support of his loyal base, if they were to have any shot at re-election.

Worried about Mr. Trump’s chances, though, many Republicans closed their campaigns with warnings to voters of the risks posed by putting the White House and Congress under full Democratic control.

Credit…Kathryn Gamble for The New York Times

In North Carolina, Cal Cunningham, a telegenic Iraq war veteran who led for much of the year, was at grave risk of falling short in his effort to oust Republican Senator Thom Tillis. Mr. Tillis had a lead of nearly 100,000 votes early Wednesday, but North Carolina accepts postmarked mail-in ballots until Nov. 12, making a final call premature.

The race in Maine has been just as steady, with the Democrat, Sara Gideon, the speaker of the State Legislature, threatening to unseat Ms. Collins, a four-term Republican and one of the last centrists left in her party. After easily winning re-election in 2014, Ms. Collins struggled to stay afloat as her race became a national referendum on the Republican Party, and she was battling to win a majority to avoid activating the state’s newly enacted ranked-choice voting system, which could badly hurt her chances.

“We’ve never given up because that is what we Mainers do — we work hard, we show up for work every day and we get the job done,” Ms. Collins told her supporters, addressing them in a snowy parking lot in Bangor. “I wish that I could thank each of you by name, that would take all night — on the other hand, we may be here all night.”

Democrats remained hopeful about two races in Georgia, where Jon Ossoff, a 33-year-old documentary filmmaker, had mounted a strong challenge to Senator David Perdue, and the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock was challenging Senator Kelly Loeffler in a special election to replace the retired Republican senator Johnny Isakson. With multiple Democratic and Republican candidates splitting the vote, Ms. Loeffler was headed to a runoff with Dr. Warnock, after Republican Representative Doug Collins conceded. Mr. Ossoff and Mr. Perdue could end up in a runoff, too, but were both still jockeying to clear the 50 percent required under Georgia law to win outright.

Mr. McConnell, 78, handily beat back a challenge from Amy McGrath, a former fighter pilot. Democrats poured $100 million into the contest, but Ms. McGrath never commanded the kind of support in the solidly Republican state to make the incumbent nervous.

Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

Both parties had other targets, but they were considered stretches. For Republicans, the best option was Michigan, where John James, a Black Iraq war veteran who ran for the Senate unsuccessfully in 2018, was trying to unseat Senator Gary Peters. Democrats believed they had an outside shot of defeating Dan Sullivan in Alaska.

The outcome of the Senate contest promised to heavily shape the next two years in Washington. If Democrats were able to grab control of the House, Senate and White House at once for the first time since 2010, they could abolish the legislative filibuster — the last major vestige of minority rights in the Senate — and push through an ambitious slate of bills on voting rights, gun safety, policing and prescription drug prices. They would most likely reserve much of their political capital for expanding the Affordable Care Act and raising taxes on the wealthy to offset that and other new programs.

Nodding to the possibility of all-Democratic control, Mr. McConnell warned during his victory speech: “This is no time to declare war on our institutions because one side is angry that the framers made it hard to achieve radical change.”

But Democrats feared that even if Mr. Biden were to win, they could fall short in the Senate, saddling the incoming president with a Republican majority ready to oppose him on nearly every front, dashing liberal hopes and swiping his agenda off the table. Facing a Senate led by Mr. McConnell, Mr. Biden could even have an uphill battle winning its approval to fill his cabinet, and he would certainly face opposition to liberal nominees to the federal courts.

Similarly, if Mr. Trump were re-elected and Democrats controlled both the House and Senate, his second term could be a frustrating exercise in stalemate.

Emily Cochrane and Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.

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