The polls, the pandemic and the piles of campaign cash had Democrats tasting victory in the Senate heading into Tuesday’s election. But that may turn out to be an illusion, and Republicans are on the verge of extending their six-year control in the chamber.
That outcome would relegate Democrats’ expansive agenda on issues including taxes, climate change and healthcare to the sidelines.
Democrats still have a narrow, long-shot path to avoiding disaster. If they don’t notch come-from-behind victories to claim GOP-held seats in North Carolina or Alaska, they’d have to flip both Georgia Senate seats in what would be an epic January runoff for control of the chamber.
Dropping vote margins for Republican Senator David Perdue against Democrat Jon Ossoff as vote-counting continued raised odds of a second runoff in Georgia.
Perdue spokesman Ben Fry acknowledged the potential for a runoff Thursday but said Perdue had substantially more votes in the first round and predicted victory in the end.
The Senate now stands at 48 Republicans to 48 Senators who align with Democrats, with four races yet to be resolved.
Barring a Democratic comeback, Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell is poised to renew his hold as majority leader, where he would have the power to cripple Joe Biden’s agenda if he wins the presidency or to speed through more of President Donald Trump’s judicial appointments to solidify conservative domination of the courts.
“There’s going to be a lot of soul searching in the Democratic Party over the next weeks and months to come,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections. “We’re in this weird situation where Biden could be elected president of the United States and Democrats are going to be beating themselves up over what happened in this election.”
Although Democrats picked up seats in Colorado and Arizona, they fell short everywhere else. They lost a seat in Alabama, as expected, and they failed to prevail in other races viewed as tossups with incumbent Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Steve Daines of Montana and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. They didn’t come close to winning any of the longer shots on their target list, including seats in Texas and Kansas, despite often having a massive edge in fundraising and spending.
In addition, Democrats suffered several losses in House races when they were widely expected to increase their majority in that chamber.
Much of the credit goes to Trump’s enduring hold on Republican voters despite persistently low national approval ratings and the intense polarisation generated by his presidency.
“The president ran a heck of a race,” McConnell said Wednesday. “Everybody was writing him off, said he had no shot, and he went out and literally worked himself to death the last two months with multiple rallies every day and turned it into a cliffhanger against everybody’s expectation.”
Jessica Taylor, Senate editor of the non-partisan Cook Political Report, was among the independent analysts who before the election viewed Democrats as favourites to retake the Senate majority. She said either there was a major shift toward Trump in the final days of the campaign or the polls were simply wrong.
“Most of these races are going to end up tracking fairly closely with the presidential results,” she said.
Doug Usher, a pollster and partner at Forbes Tate Partners who advises corporations and associations on political trends, said the Democrats’ failure to win more Senate races largely reflects that Americans increasingly vote a straight party line in national elections.
“It’s just the overwhelming power of people tying their federal votes together,” Usher said. “Despite the incredible differentials in spending in states like South Carolina and Iowa, it’s hard to overcome the power of the top of the ticket.”
As recently as 2012, voters in six states elected a senator of a different party than their presidential choice. By 2016, no state did, for the first time in the modern era, Usher said.
“Red states tended to remain red in the presidential and tended to take their senators with them,” said pollster J. Ann Selzer, who runs the Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll, which showed Trump overtaking Biden and Ernst pulling ahead of her challenger just days before the election.
This year, Collins is so far the only Senate candidate to win despite the opposing party’s presidential candidate being victorious in her state, Maine.
Democrats had built a massive fundraising advantage in most of the key races, much of it via small-dollar donors through the Democratic fundraising portal ActBlue, but that money advantage went for naught in places like South Carolina, Maine, Montana and Iowa.
The race in North Carolina hasn’t yet been called, but it was the most expensive Senate race in history. Democrat Cal Cunningham raised US$46.8 million for his campaign and outside groups spent US$115.2 million to either help his candidacy or hurt that of GOP Senator Thom Tillis, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. Tillis raised just US$21.5 million and outside groups spent a total of US$100.7 million to either aid him or hurt Cunningham’s chances. Cunningham had been narrowly leading most polls heading into the election, but he was trailing Tillis by just less than two percentage points in the most recent vote counts.
In Iowa, the second most expensive race, Ernst raised US$23.5 million for her re-election and benefited from US$74.5 million from outside groups working to help her or defeat her Democratic opponent, Theresa Greenfield. Greenfield, though, raised US$47 million for her campaign and outside groups spent $96.8 million to help her or hurt Ernst’s candidacy.
Both parties’ campaign committees raised hundreds of millions of dollars, though the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had the edge, raising a record $244.3 to $219.7 million for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
There was no shortage of spending from outside groups that included super-PACs run by allies of McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Total spending by outside groups in Senate general election races in 2020 totalled US$1.1 billion, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. That beats the previous record of US$548.7 million set in 2018.
McConnell said Republicans were “way behind” Democrats in harnessing small donors online and vowed the GOP would make changes.
However, Taylor said another lesson from the election is “that money isn’t everything.”