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Democrats gained ground in Senate, but delays expected

Updated November 3, 2020 - 11:30 pm

WASHINGTON — Democrats gained ground in the Senate late Tuesday as Republicans battled to defend competitive seats in a bruising battle in one of the most expensive elections in history.

Democrats struck first.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper defeated incumbent GOP Sen. Cory Gardner in a state that, like Nevada, is turning reliably blue in recent elections. Democrats also won a seat in Arizona.

But Tommy Tuberville, a popular former Auburn University football coach, defeated Democratic incumbent Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama, a reliably Republican state, according to projections by The Associated Press.

Democrats kept control of the House, and they needed to pick up three to four seats in the Senate to win the majority and control the chamber. The total needed depends on whether President Donald Trump is re-elected, or if Joe Biden wins and Kamala Harris as vice president provides the tie-breaking Senate vote.

Republicans currently hold a 53-47 majority, with two independents who caucus with 45 Democrats.

‘On the offensive’

As results poured in, it was clear Democrats had momentum against Republicans who were defending more seats in a cycle that has been overshadowed by a coronavirus pandemic, health care concerns and a Supreme Court confirmation battle.

“We are on the offensive,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

During an election broadcast by The Washington Post, Cortez Masto said that even before the pandemic hit, health care was the No. 1 issue for voters in Nevada and other states.

“People want to make sure they’re protected and have access to health care coverage,” said Cortez Masto, the first Latina to head the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who won re-election Tuesday, said control of the Senate could come down to a coin toss that could end his six-year reign over the chamber, even after the confirmation of a third Supreme Court Justice, Amy Coney Barrett.

McConnell said conservatives hoped the confirmation would rally the base for challenged GOP senators, but McConnell said fundraising success by the Democrats after the Supreme Court fight gave them more paths to victory.

Cortez Masto headed several grassroots fundraising events, including one with former President Barack Obama, to raise money for the DSCC and five Senate candidates.

Overall, spending on the presidential, Senate and House races is expected to top a record-breaking $14 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group that tracks money in politics.

The analyst website FiveThirtyEight said Democrats are favored to win back the majority of the Senate. The last time Democrats controlled the chamber, Harry Reid of Nevada served as Senate majority leader.

Delayed results

But mail-in balloting conducted in competitive states, two runoff elections for two seats in Georgia, and multiple candidates in Maine made it likely that control of the Senate would take time to be decided.

Depending upon Georgia, that could be next year.

In addition to Jones, Democrats were also defending a challenge to Sen. Gary Peters in Michigan, facing a well-funded campaign by Republican John James. Trump won the state in 2016. Peters was trailing James late Tuesday.

In Arizona, former astronaut Mark Kelly, a Democrat and husband of gun control activist and former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Martha McSally in the race for the seat once held by the late Sen. John McCain.

Maine moderate GOP Sen. Susan Collins, the only senator to vote against Barrett’s confirmation, trailed her opponent Sara Gideon, the state House speaker and a Democrat who has out raised the incumbent and led in major polls.

Still, the race, rated a “toss up” by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, was extremely close with Maine voters able to vote for a preference of candidates that could delay a decision for days.

Another pair of races rated “toss up” were in North Carolina and South Carolina.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who tested positive for COVID-19 at a White House event to introduce Barrett, was fending off a challenge by Democrat and Army veteran Cal Cunningham, who became embroiled in a sex scandal late in the campaign.

Democrats dumped campaign cash into South Carolina where Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, roiled the waters with his push to confirm Barrett in a presidential election year, and just one week before the election.

But Graham defeated Jaime Harrison, an African American and Democrat who attacked the GOP incumbent for rushing the confirmation through while ignoring state constituents’ need for coronavirus relief.

“We did it,” said Graham in celebration with supporters. He was out raised and outspent by Harrison following an influx of small-donor money during the confirmation fight.

The biggest question mark on election night was Georgia, where heavy turnout by African Americans and suburban elderly voters gave Democrats hope that they would win without runoffs in both races due to multiple candidates.

Republican Sen. David Perdue will compete in a runoff with Democrat Jon Ossoff, and a second special election race will feature incumbent GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who advanced to a runoff with Democrat Raphael Warnock.

Other competitive races included Iowa, where Republican Joni Ernst was re-elected, and Montana where GOP Sen. Steve Daines beat back a challenge from Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

Contact Gary Martin at gmartin@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7390. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.

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