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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.
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.

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 2 independents — Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — caucusing with Democrats).

Democrats need to win four seats to flip the chamber after Alabama Sen. Doug Jones lost to Republican Tommy Tuberville, the former Auburn football coach. Jones' reelection chances were always tough competing in a state that 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 that they had expanded the playing field into traditionally red territory — competing in states like Montana, Kansas and South Carolina. But Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines 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 South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the president's strongest allies in the Senate. It was Graham's biggest challenge to date, but he won his fourth term.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn openly worried about being outspent but he came out on top in a tough race with Democrat M.J. Hegar, with President 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 they 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.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, 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.

North Carolina GOP Sen. Thom Tillis, 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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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

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