Republicans Maintain Control Of Senate

Defying the odds, Republicans held on in several traditionally Democratic states to keep control of the Senate.

Capitol Daytime

In addition to a White House win that leads to an uncertain future, Republicans made it through Election Night holding onto control of the Senate:

Republicans maintained control of the Senate on Tuesday, fending off numerous Democratic challengers who polls showed were leading going into Election Day, as incumbents were pulled along by Donald J. Trump’s unanticipated strength in several key battleground states.

Senators Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Richard M. Burr of North Carolina and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania made late comebacks to win re-election and to help ensure Republicans retained power.

Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, who insisted a year ago that he would not seek another term and embarked on an unsuccessful race for president, defeated his Democratic challenger, Representative Patrick Murphy.

Many other incumbents fared well, even in a climate of high voter dissatisfaction with anyone who could be labeled part of the Washington establishment.

Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican who was considered highly vulnerable when the campaign began, easily won re-election, as did Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. Senators Roy Blunt of Missouri, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Tim Scott of South Carolina and James Lankford of Oklahoma, all Republicans, also won.

In Wisconsin, Mr. Johnson, who had been trailing badly against former Senator Russ Feingold, was aided by an enormous cash infusion from outside groups.

Democrats picked up at least one seat but were finding others elusive, ensuring that they would remain in the minority of a fiercely divided chamber. Democrats gained the Senate seat in Illinois with Representative Tammy Duckworth defeating Senator Mark S. Kirk, a Republican. Also, in New Hampshire, Gov. Maggie Hassan was clinging to a lead of a little more than 1,000 votes in her quest to unseat Kelly Ayotte, the Republican senator.

And in Nevada, Catherine Cortez Masto defeated Representative Joe Heck, retaining the seat for Democrats held by Senator Harry Reid, who is retiring. But they lost their chances at a gain when Evan Bayh, who had served two terms each as governor and senator in the state, lost to Representative Todd Young.

Many races narrowed substantially in the closing weeks, and analysts in both parties predicted that the Senate would be closely divided no matter which party took control.

From the beginning of the election cycle, Republicans were on the defensive in the Senate, where they had far more competitive seats in play than the Democrats. In the House, gerrymandering and the Republicans’ largest majority since the 1930s seemed sure to keep the chamber in their control.

In the Senate, seven incumbent Republicans elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010 seemed particularly vulnerable, but the party had built up something of a buffer with big wins in 2014 that gave it a four-seat majority.

Republicans also benefited from the efforts of Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, who tried to make sure that incumbents did not face the kind of challenges from the right that had bedeviled the party since 2010.

Mr. Toomey, Mr. Burr and Senator and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa all avoided seriously contested primaries, allowing many of them to run as seasoned center-right candidates as opposed to hard-line conservatives. Mr. Rubio also avoided a messy intraparty fight for his seat once he entered the race after his failed shot at the White House.

Republicans’ fear of Mr. Trump’s presidential bid lingered before the votes were tallied. Most starkly, Mr. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, waited until the last possible moment to say that he voted for the Republican nominee after weeks of evading the question.

But in the end, some candidates who rejected Mr. Trump prevailed, others who abandoned him lost and those who tried to avoid the question of his candidacy did fine. Mr. Portman, who started off as a provisional underdog, began an early attack on his opponent, Ted Strickland, the former Ohio governor, over job losses during Mr. Strickland’s tenure. His no-stone-unturned campaign — which even included radio ads in Ukrainian — and a big volunteer network helped him compensate for a less robust turnout operation from the top of the ticket.

As of now the only Senate seats that appear to be unresolved are the Senate race in New Hampshire, where Kelly Ayotte maintains a slight lead over outgoing Governor Maggie Hassan, and Louisiana which is headed for that state’s traditional runoff election which the Republican candidate is expected to easily win absent some incredibly unforeseen circumstances. This leaves Mitch McConnell with, at the worst, a 51-49 majority for the next two years and, more likely, a 52 to 48 seat majority that has real potential for growth when the 2018 midterms roll around. Thanks to these wins, Republicans will be able to easily approve Trump’s cabinet appointments as well as hold off on the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court to allow President Trump to select his own Supreme Court nominee after being sworn into office. The fact that this happened in a year when the odds were stacked against continued Republican control if only because of traditional electoral expectations makes the accomplishment even more surprising than it might otherwise have been. Some races, such as the outcome in Wisconsin, seemed to portend the outcome of the Presidential race as Ron Johnson seemingly easily fended off from Russ Feingold to win re-election, a sign that things were not going well in the traditional Democratic firewall in the Industrial Midwest.

Thanks to this win, Republicans will have control over the two popularly elected branches of the Federal Government going forward, and will be able to shape the course of the Judiciary for years to come with at least one Supreme Court appointment that will no doubt seek to continue the legacy of Antonin Scalia and the Court’s conservative wing. They will be able to pass much of the agenda of the House and the newly elected President with at best only a minimal ability on the part of Senate Democrats to stop them, and they will be able to take steps to reverse many of the aspects of the Obama Presidency that Republicans have objected to the most over the past eight years. Finally, it means that Republicans will be able to adopt budgets that previously would have been dead on arrival, or simply unrealistic given the fact that the White House was under Democratic control.


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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Scott says:

    Well, there will be no excuse for not governing although I have doubts about taking responsibility for the consequences.

    I think what the Republicans have done exceptionally and the Democrats have not is to organize at the local level and work themselves up. This is not a new insight but I wonder if the lesson will be learned this time.

    Republicans will overreach just as Democrats did in a few areas. I will wait for the blue states to start filing federal lawsuits just as the red states have been doing accusing the federal government of overreach.

  2. Franklin says:

    Too bad the Trump voters didn’t know he was actually going to win, otherwise a lot of them would’ve probably voted for Democratic senators in order to keep divided government.

    In any case, doesn’t seem like anybody remembers the last time we had an all-Republican federal government … geez, it was only 8 years ago, coming off ridiculous wars and in the biggest recession since the Great Depression.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Here in Illinois Mark Kirk sealed his own fate with a stupid wisecrack which was easily portrayed as racist. Tammy Duckworth’s election to the Senate was one of the Democrats’ bright spots in an otherwise dismal night.

  4. Jenos The Deplorable says:

    Time to dust off all those arguments about how horrible and undemocratic and obstructionist the Senate filibuster rules are…

    Meanwhile, I think I need to search OTB for “obstructionist” to have to throw back in people’s faces.

  5. MBunge says:

    1. The GOP should just get rid of the filibuster and ram through whatever they want. It’s been conclusively proven that it can no longer be used as originally intended and might finally wake up the Democrats. Yes, a lot of horrible stuff will get passed but it would open the door to having a functioning Congress as the norm in the future, not an exception.

    2. The aftermath of the Clinton years left the Democrats weirdly fixated on the Presidency. Outside of Howard Dean, how many Dems have really seem concerned with their electoral failures at the state and federal level? They seem to think that because individual Democratic candidates won the popular vote five of the last six Presidential elections, now looking like six of seven, that somehow invalidated all the other elections they lost. They need to start with state legislatures and work their way up.


  6. Scott says:

    @MBunge: As a baby boomer, I also think it is time for us to ride off into the sunset. I thought we did after Obama but Trump and Clinton both came back.

  7. Jc says:

    @Jenos The Deplorable: as was pointed out to me, the nuclear option makes it moot. Let them pass whatever it is they come up with. Which I am really really curious to see. Kansas comes to mind. I am really interested to see what these groundbreaking GOP ideas are – voucher healthcare, tax cuts not paid for, roll back regulations and start cuts all around, except for defense – and massive deficits of course

    Any ideas Jenos? serious here, what can we expect legislation wise?

  8. Jc says:

    And Doug, thanks for doing the twitter thing – allowed me to do other things (rather than sit and watch TV and facepalm) and still get up to the date election day info with a simple refresh

  9. bill says:

    @Jenos The Deplorable: take the high road, we’re better than that!
    so when a party wins all the branches, isn’t that called something? “mandate” comes to mind, as in “let’s unravel the past 8 years of nothingness”.

  10. Sleeping Dog says:

    The canard that “all politics is local” should be sufficiently proven to be false and that the best predictor of which party will win the down ballot offices is who wins the a given states EV.