How Republicans Held the Senate

GOP challengers unseated at least three Democratic senators on Tuesday, assuring Republican control of the upper chamber for another two years.

Republican Mike Braun celebrates during an Election Night party on Tuesday in Indianapolis after defeating Sen. Joe Donnelly.
AP Photo/Darron Cummings
Nov. 7, 2018, 12:37 a.m.

At least three Democratic senators and one Republican senator lost reelection Tuesday, padding the GOP majority and giving Majority Leader Mitch McConnell more leverage to confirm President Trump’s nominees over the next two years.

Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri all fell to GOP challengers who capitalized on the conservative lean of states Trump carried in 2016, while GOP Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada lost in the one state Republicans had to defend that Hillary Clinton won.

Democrats Bill Nelson of Florida and Jon Tester of Montana also trailed challengers as of Wednesday morning, while Republican Rep. Martha McSally led in a third uncalled race in Arizona.

Combined with Republicans’ successful defense of seats in Tennessee and Texas, the GOP locked Democrats out of the majority until at least 2020. They did so partly by tying Democratic candidates to unpopular national leaders like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.

Democrats' first senator to lose on Tuesday was Donnelly, a freshman who won his first term in 2012. The so-called "accidental senator" spent this year emphasizing his bipartisan bona fides and work on legislation with Trump but ultimately lost to Mike Braun, a self-funding distributing executive and former state legislator.

Heitkamp, who also won her first term six years ago by a narrow margin, fell to Rep. Kevin Cramer, crippled by the Republican advantage in a state Trump carried by 36 points. Republicans repeatedly tied Heitkamp, a former attorney general, to Clinton.

And in Missouri, McCaskill lost a bid for a third term to Josh Hawley, a telegenic attorney general who won his first political office just two years ago.

Three key races remained too close to call as of press time, including a Democratic pickup opportunity in Arizona, where McSally led fellow Rep. Kyrsten Sinema.

Two-term Florida Gov. Rick Scott's narrow edge over Nelson came after pouring millions of his personal fortune into TV ads highlighting the long-term incumbent’s perceived lack of accomplishment in Washington. Montana, where Tester is seeking a third term against state Auditor Matt Rosendale, was also too narrow to project.

Mississippi will head to a runoff on Nov. 27, with appointed Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith facing Democrat Mike Espy, who served as Agriculture secretary under Bill Clinton.

Democrats stanched further losses by reelecting senators in the Northeast and upper Midwest, including in states like West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, which Trump carried by varying margins.

Senators-elect like Braun, Cramer, and Hawley were important recruiting successes for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, despite private reservations by some on the Right. Cramer’s name identification as an at-large congressman rivaled that of Heitkamp, with whom he shared a ballot in 2012. Hawley and Braun early on tapped into support for Trump’s eventual nominee to the Supreme Court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Republicans were also able to hold key seats like Tennessee, where Rep. Marsha Blackburn defeated former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen to replace retiring GOP Sen. Bob Corker. She’ll be the first woman to represent the Volunteer State in the Senate. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas likewise held on despite a nationally charged challenge by Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

Republican gains on Tuesday will pay dividends two years from now, when more of their caucus will be on the ballot. They’ll be defending a host of swing-state seats such as Colorado, Iowa, and North Carolina, while Democrats will have only one vulnerable incumbent up for reelection, in Alabama.

It will also ease Republicans’ short-term efforts to confirm Trump’s nominees to the courts and Cabinet positions, and deplete the risk posed by moderate elements of the caucus, including Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, if they continue to defect on major policy issues.

This story was updated at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.

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