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Democrats' Hopes For Senate Majority Fade As GOP Beats Back Challenges

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., won reelection and helped Republican colleagues fend off challenges in several states. He's expected to remain the top GOP leader if his party keeps control of the chamber.
Timothy D. Easley
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., won reelection and helped Republican colleagues fend off challenges in several states. He's expected to remain the top GOP leader if his party keeps control of the chamber.

Updated at 12:40 p.m. ET

Republicans appear poised to retain a narrow Senate majority after winning a number of tough races and with others remaining too close to call.

The GOP currently holds a 53-47 seat majority (with two independents — Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — caucusing with Democrats).

Democrats need to win four seats to flip the chamber after Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama lost to Republican Tommy Tuberville, the former Auburn University football coach. Jones' reelection chances were always tough; Alabama overwhelmingly backs President Trump.

The Democrats' target would shrink to three seats if Joe Biden wins the White House, because his vice president would break the tie in a 50-50 Senate.

But so far, with Jones' loss, Democrats have netted only one seat. They picked up a seat in Colorado, with John Hickenlooper defeating Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, and one in Arizona, with Democrat Mark Kelly, a former astronaut, beating GOP Sen. Martha McSally.

Going into Election Day, Democrats boasted they had expanded the playing field into traditionally red territory — competing in states such as Montana, Kansas and South Carolina. But Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana beat Democrat Steve Bullock, and GOP Rep. Roger Marshall easily defeated Democrat Barbara Bollier in Kansas.

Democrat Jaime Harrison raised more money than any other Senate candidate in history — $57 million in just the last quarter — but it wasn't enough for him to knock off Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the president's strongest allies in the Senate. It was Graham's biggest challenge to date, but he won his fourth term.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas openly worried about being outspent, but he came out on top in a tough race with Democrat M.J. Hegar, with Trump winning Texas and dashing the hopes of Democrats down ballot. In Iowa, where Biden made a preelection appearance this week in hopes of flipping the state to blue, Trump also won, and GOP Sen. Joni Ernst, who was in a close contest with Democrat Theresa Greenfield, was elected to a second term.

The results, even with those still outstanding, mark a big win for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was reelected to his seventh term. He and his allies faced record-breaking fundraising and enthusiasm among Democratic candidates and outside groups, plus a backlash from the left over the Kentucky Republican's push for swift confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Most political handicappers projected the Senate was more likely than not to flip blue.

The 2020 Senate map was always an uphill battle for Republicans — something McConnell warned about at the outset of the election cycle. In the final days, he said there were "dogfights" across the country and that retaining control was a "50-50 proposition." Almost twice as many Republicans — 23 — were on the ballot in 2020 as Democrats — 12 — and all of the most competitive races featured GOP incumbents.

McConnell is expected to remain leader of the GOP conference if Republicans hold the chamber. During Trump's first term, McConnell led the effort to remake the federal judiciary with 220 judges confirmed, including three Supreme Court justices.

Democrats hoped that progressives' concerns about Barrett replacing liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court would help fuel their bid to oust Republicans, who confirmed her just days before Election Day.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the only Republican to vote against Barrett, was one of the most vulnerable members. But Collins was ahead early Wednesday in her bid against Democratic candidate Sarah Gideon, according to The Associated Press.

GOP Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, also a top-tier target for Democrats, was leading in the AP vote count, but the race as of early Wednesday was still too close to call, as was North Carolina's choice for president.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Democrats hoped to win one or both Senate seats in Georgia. The contest between GOP Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff has not yet been called by the AP. And the special election for the other seat will go to a runoff because no candidate received 50% of the vote — Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler will face Democrat Raphael Warnock, a pastor from Atlanta, on Jan. 5.

In Michigan, which could take some time to finish counting ballots, the contest between GOP candidate John James, a top recruit, and Democratic Sen. Gary Peters is still undecided.

As in the presidential race, Democrats stuck mostly to a message about health care, warning that Senate Republicans have spent the past 10 years trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. They also hammered the president's handling of the coronavirus and criticized Senate Republicans for not doing more to approve funding to fight the pandemic.

But GOP candidates insisted they support preserving health insurance for those with preexisting conditions, even though many voted in favor of attempts to repeal the ACA. McConnell has said he backs moving on more coronavirus relief at the beginning of next year.

Looking toward the potential of a contested presidential election count, McConnell said he was neither troubled by the prospect of litigation over the outcome of the election nor Trump's decision to claim victory falsely overnight despite multiple states still counting voter ballots.

"Going to court is the way we resolve uncertainty in our country," McConnell told reporters at a Wednesday press conference in his home state of Kentucky. "So no, I'm not troubled at all by the president suggesting that, because the other side is already doing that, too. You can anticipate in close elections both sides will be lawyered up and we'll end up in court. It has happened, over and over and over again. It's nothing unusual."

McConnell said the outcome of the presidential race is still unsettled and it may be another day or more before key Senate races are decided.

"It is not unusual for people to claim they won the election," McConnell said. "But claiming you won the election is different from finishing the counting. And what we're going to see here in the next few days, both in the Senate races and in the presidential race, is each state will ultimately get to a final outcome. And you should not be shocked that both sides are going to have lawyers there."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
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