Dems pick up a seat and lose another in battle for control of the U.S. Senate

Wikimedia Commons photo courtesy of Martin Falbisoner.

WASHINGTON — Democrats gained at least one Republican-held seat in the U.S. Senate, but also lost a seat of their own, leaving the question of which party will control the chamber unclear early Wednesday with multiple competitive contests unresolved.

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.

“Regardless of which party ends up controlling the Senate, I want you to know what I will work with anyone and everyone to help Coloradans,” Hickenlooper said.

Gardner pledged to assist Hickenlooper in the transition, and called for unity: “Please understand, to all the people who supported our efforts tonight, that his success is Colorado’s success, and our nation and our state need him to succeed.”

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.

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 62,000-vote lead with 89% reporting.

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. On the other end of the U.S. Capitol, Democrats were projected on Tuesday to maintain a majority in the U.S. House. If Biden secures enough votes to become president, his policy agenda could be blocked by a GOP Senate — and a Democratic one could give him the votes to sign his top priorities into law.

The clearest path for Democrats to flip the Senate was through winning GOP-held seats in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and either Iowa or North Carolina, according to analysts who track those races. But final results for most of those races had yet to come late Tuesday, as polls closed across the country.

In Arizona, Democrat Mark Kelly had a 10-point lead over Republican incumbent Martha McSally with 74% of votes reported. Iowa’s returns showed Democrat Theresa Greenfield leading Republican incumbent Joni Ernst, though many rural votes were yet to be counted there. And early returns in Maine gave Republican incumbent Susan Collins an edge.

Georgia has two Senate races, where several scenarios can play out and the outcome of each race could take up to days or even weeks. In each race, a candidate needs to get more than 50% of the votes or else a runoff election will be held on Jan. 5 with the top two candidates.

One race is a special election with Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed last year after Sen. Johnny Isakson stepped down due to health problems. As of late Tuesday, Democratic Senate candidate Raphael Warnock had a slim lead over Loeffler, but neither candidate passed the 50% percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. Another Republican candidate in Georgia’s special election, Doug Collins, wrote on Twitter that he called to congratulate Loeffler, as she would be the Republican candidate in a runoff election.

“I look forward to all Republicans coming together,” he wrote. “Raphael Warnock would be a disaster for Georgia and America.”

Georgia’s other race, between incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff, has not been called yet. However, Perdue late Tuesday had a lead above the 50% percent threshold.

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.

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

As of mid-October, eight of the top 10 most expensive Senate races have taken place in the 2020 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And in Senate races, Democrats outraised Republicans, pulling in $726 million to Republicans’ $423 million through September.

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.

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Laura Olson
Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Ohio Capital Journal. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.
Ariana Figueroa
Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance. Before joining States Newsroom, Ariana covered public health and chemical policy on Capitol Hill for E&E News. As a Florida native, she's worked for the Miami Herald and her hometown paper, the Tampa Bay Times. Her work has also appeared in the Chicago Tribune and NPR. She is a graduate of the University of Florida.