Democrats struggle for U.S. Senate control after failing to knock off GOP incumbents

The U.S. Capitol. Credit: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Democrats gained at least one Republican-held seat in the U.S. Senate, but also lost a seat of their own and were unable to defeat several GOP incumbents in the elections, ending up early Wednesday with an increasingly challenging path to wresting control of the chamber away from Republicans.

The initial results showed a disappointing night for Democrats, and made the prospect of another two years of a politically divided Congress more likely, even as lawmakers struggle to come to an agreement on an economic relief package amid the pandemic.

In Colorado, Democrats succeeded in flipping the seat held by GOP Sen. Cory Gardner, a first-term lawmaker seen as one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans this cycle. He struggled in his reelection race against Democratic former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who also sought the presidential nomination this year.

At the same time, Democrats, as predicted, lost a seat in Alabama. Sen. Doug Jones was defeated by Republican candidate Tommy Tuberville, former head football coach at Auburn University. The Associated Press called the Alabama race.

Other Senate Republicans that Democrats had targeted held off their challengers.

In a neck-and-neck contest in North Carolina, Democrat Cal Cunningham had an early lead, but GOP Sen. Thom Tillis closed the gap as results trickled in for a 96,000-vote lead with 94% reporting. The AP and other news outlets hadn’t called the race when Tillis declared victory shortly before midnight.

“I have a very hard time right now seeing how Democrats win back the Senate,” Jessica Taylor, a Senate analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, tweeted early Wednesday morning, adding that the remaining path was “not impossible, but looking unlikely.”

Democrats headed into Election Day well-positioned to potentially regain a majority in the Senate, where Republicans hold 53 seats to the Democrats’ 47 (a tally that includes two independents who caucus with the party).

Flipping partisan control would require Democrats to pick up four seats, or just three if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden claims the White House, since his vice president would break any ties on the Senate floor.
Which party controls the Senate will have significant implications for the next president and his agenda.

In Arizona, Democrat Mark Kelly had a 10-point lead over Republican incumbent Martha McSally with 76% of votes reported. But in Iowa, Republican incumbent Joni Ernst held off Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield after a close and historically expensive race there. And in Maine, Republican incumbent Susan Collins led Democrat Sara Gideon, 52% to 41%, with two-thirds of votes tallied.

Another Republican incumbent defended his seat from a Democratic challenger. In Montana’s Senate race, Sen. Steve Daines beat the state’s current governor, Steve Bullock, with 53% percent of the votes as reported by the AP.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina kept his Senate seat, according to The Associated Press, in a competitive race against his Democratic opponent Jaime Harrison, who brought in a whopping $107 million in fundraising. Democrats had hoped to upseat Graham, a close ally to the president who shepherded the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett through the Senate.

Another Republican that kept his seat was Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a member of GOP leadership. He beat his Democratic challenger, MJ Hegar, according to the AP.

In Kansas, where the Senate seat held by Republican Pat Roberts was open, the AP declared Republican Roger Marshall the winner in the contest against Democrat Barbara Bollier.

But Democrats are defending far fewer competitive seats than the GOP is, an advantage that was bolstered by a polarizing Republican president whose struggles in the polls have not helped down-ballot Republicans. The party also kept its seat in Virginia, with Sen. Mark Warner’s reelection, which the AP called shortly after polls closed. However, Republican challenger Daniel Gade slammed the AP for calling the race and was refusing to concede late Tuesday.

Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota also kept her seat from her challenger, Republican candidate Jason Lewis, which the AP called. She won nearly 50% of reported votes.

Democrats also were boosted by a flood of campaign cash, as Senate races across the country shattered political fundraising records.

In Kentucky’s Senate race, Democratic nominee Amy McGrath raised $88 million in funding, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won his reelection campaign. He raised $55.5 million.