Democrats were projected to retain control of the Senate on Saturday, clinching a narrow majority as they showed strength in battleground races in a daunting midterm year that handed President Joe Biden a major victory as he embarks on his next two years in office.
The final blow to Republican hopes of retaking the chamber came in Nevada, where Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) was projected to win reelection, edging past Adam Laxalt (R), a former state attorney general. Cortez Masto’s projected win ensures Democrats a 50th seat, with a runoff election still to come in Georgia on Dec. 6. Vice President Kamala Harris is empowered to cast tiebreaking votes in the Senate.
Control of the House was still up in the air on Sunday, as vote counting continued days after an election in which Democrats overperformed expectations in many contested areas across the country. Democratic control of the Senate dashes GOP hopes of a full takeover on Capitol Hill.
That’s welcome news for Biden, who was staring down the possibility of humbling defeats as the election neared. Now, the Senate,. which oversees the confirmation of executive branch personnel and federal judges, will stay in his party’s corner. The president and his party will also have more say than they would have had in the minority when it comes to major legislative debates over domestic and foreign policy spending and other big issues.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the chair of the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, said in a statement the victories represented a “resounding endorsement of Democrats’ Senate majority” and “a rejection of the extremism espoused by the GOP.” Cortez Masto announced she would deliver a victory speech on Sunday.
In Nevada, Cortez Masto’s win was part of a perfect record so far by incumbent senators seeking reelection in the midterms, as voters tilted strongly against upending the established order in the chamber. It was part of a strong showing by Democrats in battleground areas where Republicans fell short after emphasizing rising prices and concerns about crime during an era of one-party control in Washington.
Republicans started the election needing to gain one seat to seize control of the Senate. Democrats flipped a seat in Pennsylvania and held on in several other states seen as vulnerable, running heavily as protectors of abortion rights after the end of Roe v. Wade and casting GOP rivals as extremists. One such state was Arizona, where Sen. Mark Kelly (D) was projected to win Friday night over Republican challenger Blake Masters.
In Nevada, Laxalt sought to tie Cortez Masto to Biden while blaming inflation and crime on Democratic policies, pointing to a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill Cortez Masto helped pass during the height of the pandemic.
Republicans predicted their economic message would be especially resonant in a working-class state with some of the highest inflation in the country. But both parties always expected the race to be decided by razor-thin margins, and Cortez Masto claimed a second term in a state the GOP long considered a top pickup opportunity.
Cortez Masto, who is the first Latina elected to the Senate, made abortion access central to her campaign, warning that her opponent could help pass a federal abortion ban even as Nevada had guaranteed access to the procedure by popular vote. She also touted Democrats’ efforts to bring down costs, including the price of prescription drugs.
Laxalt has said he would not support a national abortion ban, though he supports a referendum in the state to ban abortion after 13 weeks. During the general election, he spoke little about his role in fanning former president Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud, as Democrats attacked him on the issue.
The fight for the Senate was a focal point of the midterm campaign, with huge sums of cash flooding into key states. Inexperienced candidates elevated by Trump eased Democrats’ path in some important races, at times stumbling and giving Democrats more room to go on the attack.
In Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) defeated celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, a first-time Republican candidate boosted by the former president. Oz faced scrutiny over his popular TV show, which promoted questionable products; his longtime New Jersey residency; and instances Democrats used to paint him as an out-of-touch candidate, including his reference to raw vegetables as “crudite.”
The Arizona race also featured a Trump-backed newcomer in Masters, who Democrats branded as an extremist. They seized on comments he made about privatizing Social Security and his support for abortion restrictions, including a national 15-week ban.
Democrats held off other challenges, stymieing Republican attempts to advance into Colorado, Washington state and New Hampshire. Republicans nominated more moderate candidates in the first two states but in New Hampshire, the GOP nominee was Don Bolduc, a far-right contender who embraced much of Trump’s platform and had claimed falsely that Trump won the 2020 election.
Republicans kept control of open seats in North Carolina and Ohio and will be sending two new senators to the upper chamber from those states: Rep. Ted Budd and author J.D. Vance, respectively. In Wisconsin, Sen. Ron Johnson (R) narrowly won reelection in a competitive contest.
In Georgia, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) ran just slightly ahead of Republican nominee Herschel Walker, a former football player. But neither candidate met the 50 percent threshold required to avert a runoff. So the two will face off again in a runoff next month Both sides have been gearing up in the purple state.
In Alaska, vote tallying continues under a new ranked-choice system. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a target of Trump, and Kelly Tshibaka, a challenger backed by the former president, were in competition in that race.
In total, Democrats were playing defense in the Senate in 14 states this midterm year—all of which were won by Biden in 2020. Republicans were playing defense in 21 states, including two where Biden won. One was Pennsylvania, so far the only flipped seat.
The losses have stirred discontent among Republicans in the Senate, and at least six of them have pushed for next week’s leadership elections to be delayed in a challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s leadership.
The Senate Leadership Fund, an outside group closely associated with McConnell (R-Ky.), spent more than $230 million this cycle backing Republicans in races across the country. Without directly criticizing Trump, McConnell lamented before the election that “candidate quality” issues made it harder for Republicans to flip the Senate than the House.
Since several Trump-backed Senate candidates have lost, Trump and his allies have attempted to turn the blame around on McConnell, criticizing him for not spending more in Arizona to back Masters and other decisions.