WASHINGTON — Democrats faced increasingly long odds as the battle for Senate control hangs in balance, and Republicans brushed back multiple challengers to protect their majority. Still, it was too soon for the GOP to declare victory.
In Michigan, Democrats were spared a loss late Wednesday when Sen. Gary Peters beat back a tough challenge from Republican John James. But Republicans held on to Susan Collins in Maine and other key seats across the map.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said President Donald Trump’s campaign helped his GOP allies, but that state election officials were still counting ballots. Key Senate races in North Carolina, Alaska and Georgia remained undecided.
“We're waiting — whether I'm going to be the majority leader or not,” McConnell said at a news conference in his home state of Kentucky.
In a delicate pushback against Trump's own premature claims of victory over Joe Biden in the presidential race, the GOP leader said: “Claiming you’ve won the election is different from finishing the counting."
McConnell said he felt “pretty good” about the remaining contests. He secured a seventh term in a costly campaign, fending off Democrat Amy McGrath, a former fighter pilot.
Election night delivered a jarring outcome for Democrats who had devised an expanded political map, eager to counter Trump and his party’s grip on the Senate.
While Democrats picked up must-win seats in Colorado and Arizona, they suffered a setback in Alabama, and Republicans held their own in one race after another — in South Carolina, Iowa, Texas, Kansas, Montana and Maine, dramatically limiting Democrats' hopes to make inroads.
The races attracted an unprecedented outpouring of small-dollar donations for Democrats, from Americans apparently voting with their pocketbooks to propel long-shot campaigns.
The voters’ choices will force a rethinking of Democratic Party strategy, messaging, and approach in the Trump era.
"You wasted a lot of money,” said White House ally Sen. Lindsey Graham in Columbia, South Carolina, after defeating Jamie Harrison, despite the Democrat's stunning $100 million haul for his upstart campaign. “This is the worst return on investment in the history of American politics.”
Trump loomed large over the Senate races as did Democratic rival Joe Biden. The Trump administration's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout, as well as the nation's uneasy mood all seemed to be on the ballot.
Voters ranked the pandemic and the economy as top concerns, according to AP VoteCast, a national survey of the electorate.
“It’s time for a different approach,” said Democrat John Hickenlooper, a former governor who unseated Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in Colorado, in a live video message posted on Facebook.
Yet voters, for the most part, stuck with the status quo.
Securing the Senate majority will be vital for the winner of the presidency. Senators confirm administration nominees, including the Cabinet, and can propel or stall the White House agenda. With Republicans now controlling the chamber, 53-47, three or four seats will determine party control, depending on who wins the presidency because the vice president can break a tie in the Senate.
Democrats contested seats from New England to the Deep South and the Midwest to the Mountain West, reaching deep into GOP strongholds. But by early Wednesday, the tally was not too different from before Election Day.
The Democrats' gains were in Colorado and Arizona, where former astronaut Mark Kelly beat GOP incumbent Martha McSally. But they couldn’t hold on in Alabama: Former college football coach Tommy Tuberville defeated Sen. Doug Jones.
Several battlegrounds broke for Republicans: In South Carolina, Graham survived the race of his political career against Harrison; in Texas, Sen. John Cornyn turned back former Air Force helicopter pilot MJ Hegar; in Iowa, Sen. Joni Ernst defeated Democrat Theresa Greenfield in a race seen as a toss-up; in Montana, Sen. Steve Daines routed Gov. Steve Bullock; and in Kansas, Rep. Roger Marshall prevailed over state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a former Republican who energized Democrats in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1932.
In Maine, Susan Collins won the hardest-fought race of her career, securing a fifth term by defeating Democrat Sara Gideon. She declared victory Wednesday afternoon and said the outcome was “affirmation of the work that I’m doing in Washington.” Democrats had tried to tie the moderate Republican to Trump and criticized her for her vote to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.
The final breakdown awaited the outcome of races in Alaska, Georgia and North Carolina.
North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis has struggled against Democrat Cal Cunningham, despite the married challenger’s sexting scandal with a public relations strategist.
In Georgia, two seats were being contested and at least one is headed to a runoff after no candidate reached the 50% threshold to win.
GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler will face Democrat Raphael Warnock, a Black pastor at the church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, in the Jan. 5 runoff special election for the seat Loeffler was tapped to fill for retired Sen. Johnny Isakson.
In the other Georgia race, GOP Sen. David Perdue, the former business executive Trump calls his favorite senator, tried to stave off Democrat Jon Ossoff, another candidate who has benefited from the “green wave” of campaign donations. It, too, could go to a runoff.
Republicans were on defense in most states. But in the presidential battleground of Michigan, Republicans made an aggressive push for James, a Black Republican businessman who stood by Trump at a rally late Monday. James came up short in his effort to unseat Peters.
In South Carolina, Harrison energized voters, among several Black Democratic candidates for Senate including Warnock, drawing an outpouring of national support in a year of racial reckoning.
“We didn’t get the result at the ballot box that we wanted, but we showed courage and determination,” Harrison said on Twitter. “We brought hope back to South Carolina.”
Stuck in Washington as McConnell rushed the Senate to confirm Trump's Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett a week before Election Day, senators quickly fanned out — some alongside the president — for last-ditch tours to shore up votes.
The political landscape is quickly changing from six years ago, when most of these senators last faced voters.
The Senate will welcome some newcomers as others retire. In New Mexico, Democrat Ben Ray Lujan, a member of House leadership, was elected to the seat held by Democrat Tom Udall. Tennessee Republican Bill Hagerty won the seat held by Republican Lamar Alexander. Republican Cynthia Lummis, the former congresswoman from Wyoming, won the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Mike Enzi.
Associated Press writers Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Ky., Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C., and Padmananda Rama in Washington contributed to this report.