WASHINGTON – Republicans have fended off challenges in a number of key Senate races, making it increasingly unlikely Democrats could win control of the chamber.
Democrats need at least two more wins to flip the Senate – three if President Donald Trump wins reelection. Republicans currently hold 53 seats, while Democrats have 45, plus two independents who caucus with them. They’ve made one net gain since Election Day but a number of close races might not be called for days and two races might go to runoff elections, meaning the fate of the Senate majority could remain unknown for months.
There were 35 Senate seats in the election but only about 14 were truly in play. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rated 12 Republican-held seats as competitive, while just two Democratic-held seats were in that category.
But those predictions didn’t pan out, as Democrats saw major defeats across the country in key races, surprising many pollsters and election watchers across the country who predicted tight races and Democratic wins.
“This was a full-scale disappointment for Democrats,” said Jessica Taylor, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, “because they had multiple paths to the majority and at this point, virtually all of them have closed.”
Democrats did win two seats held by Republicans: in Colorado and in Arizona. They fended off a tough GOP challenge in Michigan but couldn’t pull off a win in ruby-red Alabama, where Republicans flipped a Democratic-held seat. The GOP kept it up by holding off liberal challengers in Iowa, Maine, Montana, South Carolina and a longshot race in Kentucky against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Election results in some states could take days to finalize because of the unprecedented volume of mail-in ballots in this election. Additionally, at least one Senate race in Georgia is headed to a January runoff; a second could follow.
Here’s what we know about the Senate races:
Too close to call: 3 Republican seats
North Carolina: Though a winner has not been declared and votes are still being counted, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis declared victory late Tuesday over Democrat Cal Cunningham.
Cunningham on Wednesday said he would not concede and would wait for all ballots to be counted.
“The State Board of Elections is continuing to count ballots, and we plan to allow that process to be carried out, so every voter can have their voice heard,” said Cunningham campaign manager Devan Barber.
Based on the schedule under which election officials review and count any outstanding ballots, the final determination in this race won’t be made until the end of next week.
As of late Tuesday, the North Carolina State Board of Elections said there were around 117,000 absentee ballots remaining that had been sent to voters but not returned. It’s unknown how many of these will be returned and how many were marked for Cunningham or for Tillis.
The swing-state race is crucial for Republicans as it has swung between Democrats and Republicans by narrow margins at the presidential level in the past several elections.
The race was filled with last-minute surprises that included the disclosure of Cunningham having an affair and Tillis contracting COVID-19. It was the most expensive congressional race in U.S. history, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Georgia: In an unusual twist, Georgia is home to two hotly contested Senate races this election, with both seats currently held by Republicans.
One race is headed to a runoff. But the race between incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff is still unclear. Polls show a virtual tie and votes pouring in show both candidates are neck and neck. If neither candidate wins 50% of the vote in November, the race also will go to a runoff.
Alaska: Democrats did not have Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan on their target list at the start of the 2020 cycle. After all, Trump carried Alaska by nearly 15 percentage points in 2016, and while Sullivan won a narrow victory in 2014, his reelection initially seemed like a sure bet.
But Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic has been a drag on Senate Republicans, giving Democrats new opportunities even in reliably red states. Sullivan faces an independent, Al Gross, who is a doctor and commercial fisherman.
Gross faces an uphill battle to unseat Sullivan, but his bid has some Republicans nervous. Currently, vote tallies show Sullivan ahead in the race but final results might not be known for days or weeks.
Flips: 2 in favor of Democrats, 1 for Republicans
Arizona: Democratic challenger Mark Kelly defeated incumbent Sen. Martha McSally, handing the Republican her second Senate election loss in two years.
A win for Kelly, a retired astronaut, was critical for Democratic hopes to gain control of the Senate.
McSally, a firebrand conservative aligned with Trump, lost narrowly to Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in 2018. She was later appointed to fill the seat left after the death of Sen. John McCain. The race between McSally and Kelly is a special election to complete that term.
Kelly, a gun control activist whose wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, survived an assassination attempt in 2011, has led polls throughout the race. Democrats waged a joint effort in Arizona, with presidential nominee Joe Biden making a strong play there as well. Biden also won Arizona, which last voted Democratic for president in 1996.
Colorado: Democrat John Hickenlooper, the state’s former governor, defeated Republican incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner.
Colorado has shifted in Democrats’ favor since Gardner was first elected in 2014. He only won that race by a 1.9% margin, and he was seen as one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans in this election cycle. Trump’s unpopularity in the state served as an anchor on Gardner as he fought for a second term; he consistently lagged Hickenlooper in the polls and in fundraising. Biden was named the winner in Colorado Tuesday as well.
Alabama: Republicans scored an expected victory in ruby-red Alabama, where GOP contender Tommy Tuberville, the former Auburn University football coach, defeated Democrat Doug Jones.
Jones won this seat in a 2017 special election against Republican Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Moore was dogged by allegations that he pursued sexual relationships with four teenage girls when he was in his early 30s.
The Alabama contest was long seen as a bright spot for Republicans as they seek to keep control of the Senate.
No change: 5 GOP seats, 1 Dem race
Michigan: First-term Democratic Sen. Gary Peters fended off a challenge from Republican John James, good news for Democrats still attempting an increasingly narrow path to taking the Senate majority.
“I am sincerely honored that the voters of Michigan have once again put their trust and confidence in me to represent them in the United States Senate,” Peters said in a statement. “As we look ahead, I am energized to keep working to move our state forward and continue putting Michigan first.”
Michigan had been a key target of both parties but Biden ended up scoring the state after Trump won by a slim margin in 2016.
Maine: Sen. Susan Collins has long been a target of Democrats eager to take the seat held by the moderate Republican since 1997. This year, Collins faced a tight race with Democratic Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, but Collins successfully fended off the challenge. Collins declared victory Wednesday, saying she had a “good talk” with Gideon, who had called her to concede the race.
Gideon said she spoke with Collins and congratulated her on her victory.
The Associated Press called the election for Collins just before 2:00 p.m. EST.
Collins is perhaps one of the most important votes in the U.S. Senate, often casting deciding votes that have defined the future of the nation’s health care and the Supreme Court. She was one of three Republicans to vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act in 2017 when Republicans controlled both chambers. Collins was also the lone Republican to vote against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
But her unique position has drawn ire from both sides of the aisle, thrusting her race in the very divided state in the limelight.
Her race became a focal point back in 2018 after she voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. The confirmation hearings helped spur interest in a crowdfunding campaign that brought in $4 million to the Democrat who would face Collins in 2020; that money eventually went to Gideon.
The Supreme Court vote has played a major role in the race and Gideon, like many other Democrats running this year, has criticized the Republican incumbent for her party’s handling of health care and attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Iowa: Republican Sen. Joni Ernst fended off a challenge from Democrat Theresa Greenfield.
Iowa, which Trump won by nearly 10 percentage points in 2016, seemed like a longshot for Democrats a year ago. But as Trump took a beating politically amid the coronavirus pandemic, the race between Ernst and Greenfield turned into a top play for Democrats.
Ernst, a first-term senator, promised to “make ’em squeal” in Washington, D.C., and famously described castrating hogs on her family farm during her 2014 run. She has steadfastly embraced the politics of Trump and perhaps hinged her hopes on the president carrying Iowa, which proved successful as the president won the state Tuesday.
Montana: Republican Sen. Steve Daines fended off a tough Democratic challenge from outgoing Gov. Steve Bullock, another stinging defeat for Democrats.
Montana was viewed as an uphill battle for Democrats, as Trump won the state by more than 20 percentage points in 2016, and Daines had frequently polled ahead. But Bullock was a star recruit for Democrats, a two-term governor known for being a centrist after he bowed out of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
Throughout the campaign, Daines hit Bullock on cultural issues such as gun rights, saying Bullock is “too liberal” given his poor rating from the National Rifle Association. Bullock slammed Daines for being praised by China’s ambassador to the U.S., who once called the incumbent the foreign country’s “ambassador to Congress.”
Montana had a massive early voting turnout, eclipsing more than 95% of the total votes cast in the 2016 presidential election.
South Carolina: Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham defeated Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison in the U.S. Senate race, surviving the political fight of his life and securing a fourth term.
Harrison, a former chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, raised record-setting money from Democrats nationally eager to unseat Graham, a key ally of the president.
Although South Carolina is reliably red, Harrison made the contest competitive, capitalizing on the left’s deep desire coast-to-coast to unseat Graham. The incumbent senator became one of Trump’s most loyal soldiers in the Senate despite regularly criticizing Trump during the 2016 presidential primary.
But the seat was always seen as an uphill fight for Democrats and not a key pick up for Democrats to gain control of the Senate.
Kentucky: Early in this election season, Democrats had high hopes of unseating Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the taciturn Republican who has helped Trump cement a conservative Supreme Court majority. McConnell’s Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, a former fighter pilot who proved to be a fundraising powerhouse, nearly won a staunchly conservative House seat in 2018.
But while McGrath raised eye-popping money – more than $88 million – she never gained significant traction against McConnell, a master political strategist who leaves “absolutely nothing to chance,” the Cook Political Report noted.
McGrath hoped to pull off an upset Tuesday night, making the case to Kentuckians that McConnell hasn’t done enough to help them and has instead used his power primarily to benefit himself and special interests.
But voters rejected that argument, and Tuesday marked McConnell’s seventh straight congressional win race – a clear demonstration of his immense influence in Washington and Kentucky alike.
Texas: Republican Sen. John Cornyn fended off a tough challenge to keep his Senate seat from Democrat MJ Hegar, diminishing Democratic hopes for a blue wave in Texas.
Democrats knew defeating Cornyn was an uphill battle, and political experts rated the race as favoring the Texas incumbent. The state hasn’t gone blue at the presidential level since 1976 with Jimmy Carter, and Democrats haven’t held a Senate seat since 1993 when Sen. Bob Krueger was appointed to the seat.
Going to a runoff: 1 Republican seat
Georgia: One of the two Senate races being fought in Georgia will go to a runoff, meaning voters won’t know who their next senator is until January.
The special election was an open primary, where incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler fended off a bitter challenge from fellow Republican Rep. Doug Collins. She will face off against the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat and pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, in the runoff. State rules say if neither candidate wins 50% of the vote, the race goes to a runoff.
Late on Tuesday, Collins conceded to Loeffler. “She has my support and endorsement. I look forward to all Republicans coming together,” Collins tweeted. “Raphael Warnock would be a disaster for Georgia and America.”
The runoff race is set for Jan. 5, meaning the the of the Senate majority could be unknown for weeks after Tuesday’s election.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Senate races: Republicans fend off Democrats as 2020 contests tighten