The battle for power in the Senate tightened into Wednesday as Democrats picked up a seat in Colorado, but suffered a setback in Alabama, and Republicans held their own in high-profile races in South Carolina, Iowa, Texas and Kansas, dramatically narrowing the political map.
Republicans fought to retain their Senate majority by turning back a surge of Democrats challenging allies of President Donald Trump, and the Democrats’ various paths to seizing control were growing more limited. With several contests still too early to call, and one Georgia race heading to a January runoff, the final verdict is expected to drag on.
Democrats gained a seat when ex-Gov. John Hickenlooper ousted GOP Sen. Cory Gardner in Colorado, a must-win to flip the Senate, but couldn’t hold on in Alabama, where former college football coach Tommy Tuberville beat Sen. Doug Jones.
At the same time, several battlegrounds broke for Republicans: South Carolina, where White House ally Lindsey Graham survived the race of his political career against Jamie Harrison; Texas, as Sen. John Cornyn turned back former Air Force helicopter pilot MJ Hegar; Kansas, with Rep. Roger Marshall prevailing over state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a former Republican who energized Democrats in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1932; and Iowa, where Sen. Joni Ernst defeated Democrat Theresa Greenfield in a race seen as a toss-up.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged the uncertainty ahead even after he secured a seventh term in Kentucky, fending off Democrat Amy McGrath, a former fighter pilot in a costly campaign.
“We don’t know which party will control the Senate,” McConnell said from Louisville. “But some things are certain already. We know grave challenges will remain before us, challenges that could not care less about our political polarization. We know our next president will need to unite the country, even as we all continue to bring different ideas and commitments to the table.”
Trump loomed large over the Senate races as did Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. The Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, its economic fallout and the nation’s uneasy mood all seemed to be on the ballot.
Securing the Senate majority will be vital for the winner of the presidency. Senators confirm administration nominees, including the Cabinet, and can propel or stall the White House agenda. With Republicans now controlling the chamber, 53-47, three or four seats will determine party control, depending on who wins the presidency because the vice president can break a tie.
Democrats reached deep into states once considered off-limits, contesting seats from New England to the Deep South and the Midwest to the Mountain West. They benefited from an unprecedented onslaught of small-dollar donations flowing to Democratic candidates as Americans appeared to be voting with their pocketbooks in a backlash against Trump and his party running the Senate.
Voters ranked the pandemic and the economy as top concerns, according to AP VoteCast, a national survey of the electorate.
“It’s time for a different approach,” Hickenlooper said.
But as votes came in Republicans held their own.
In South Carolina, Harrison stunned Washington by drawing more than $100 million in small-scale donations. But Graham eventually caught up as he led the Senate through confirmation of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, sometimes making pleas for cash during appearances on TV.
“We didn’t get the result at the ballot box that we wanted, but we showed courage and determination,” Harrison said on Twitter. “We brought hope back to South Carolina.”
Stuck in Washington as McConnell rushed the Senate to confirm Barrett a week before Election Day, senators quickly fanned out — some alongside the president — for last-ditch tours, often socially distanced in the pandemic, to shore up votes.
Republican Sen. Thom Tillis joined Trump’s rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on Monday. Cunningham traveled around the state Tuesday, talking to voters in Efland, near Durham.
In Arizona, Republican Martha McSally was trying to hold off Democrat Mark Kelly, a former astronaut.
Democrats had charted an expansive map with more than one route to secure the three or four seats needed to capture the majority, and GOP strategists privately acknowledged that the incumbents would almost certainly suffer defeats in some races. But the options were closing for Democrats.
In the presidential battleground of Michigan, Republicans have made an aggressive push for John James, a Black Republican businessman, against Democratic Sen. Gary Peters.
The Maine race between GOP Sen. Susan Collins and Democrat Sara Gideon was another contest that could push past Election Day if no candidate breaks the 50% threshold.
In Georgia, two Senate seats were being contested.
One already is headed to a Jan. 5 runoff after no candidate reached the 50% threshold to win. GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler will face Democrat Raphael Warnock in a special election for the seat Loeffler was tapped to fill for retired Sen. Johnny Isakson.
In the other, GOP Sen. David Perdue, the former business executive Trump calls his favorite senator, tried to stave off Democrat Jon Ossoff, another candidate who has benefited from the “green wave” of campaign donations. It too, is expected to go to a runoff.
The political landscape is quickly changing from six years ago, when most of these senators last faced voters. It’s a reminder of how sharply the political climate has shifted in the Trump era.
In Montana, Republican Sen. Steve Daines faced Gov. Steve Bullock in a state where Trump is popular.
And in Alaska, newcomer Al Gross, a doctor, broke state fundraising records in part with viral campaign ads as he took on GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan.
The Senate will welcome some newcomers as others retire. In Tennessee, Republican Bill Hagerty won the seat held by Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is retiring. Republican Cynthia Lummis, the former congresswoman from Wyoming, won the Senate seat opened by retiring GOP Sen. Mike Enzi.