Republicans hold House, Senate majorities
Tribune Washington Bureau
— Republicans kept control of the House on Tuesday and hung on to their majority in the U.S. Senate, buoyed by the unexpectedly strong showing atop the ticket by Donald Trump.
After losing the chamber two years ago, Democrats needed a net gain of five seats to retake the Senate if Trump was elected president and four if Democrat Hillary Clinton prevailed and her running mate, Tim Kaine, became the tiebreaking vote.
Many experts and political analysts had predicted a Democratic takeover, given the daunting math facing Republicans — who had to defend far more seats — and Trump’s erratic campaign.
But just as they underestimated the Republican nominee, they failed to account for the resiliency of some of the GOP’s most endangered incumbents.
Republicans staked victories in every one of the hardest-fought contests, with one exception. In Illinois, Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth knocked off Mark Kirk, long seen as the most vulnerable GOP member of the Senate.
In Wisconsin, Ron Johnson had been all but written off by strategists in both parties. Instead, he handily fended off a comeback attempt by former Democratic Sen. Russell D. Feingold. In North Carolina, Richard M. Burr won a second term despite waging a lackluster campaign.
In Arizona, Sen. John McCain
easily won a sixth term after the hardest-fought challenge of his lengthy career. In Pennsylvania, Patrick J. Toomey won after casting himself in a more bipartisan light and touting his work with Democrats on gun control.
Republicans, who currently hold 54 of 100 seats, also posted victories in two states once eyed by Democrats as promising takeover opportunities.
In Florida, Marco Rubio — a once and likely future presidential candidate — coasted to a second term after he reversed himself under pressure from GOP leaders and decided to seek another term. In Ohio, Rob Portman also won easy re-election after running one of the strongest campaigns in the country in a perennial battleground state.
In Indiana, former Sen. Evan Bayh disappointed Democrats by failing in his comeback attempt, losing the state’s open-seat contest after Republicans and their allies poured in resources for Rep. Todd Young.
In a bright spot for Democrats, Nevada’s attorney general, Catherine Cortez Masto, rallied to hang on to the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Democratic leader, Harry Reid — becoming the first Latina in the Senate.
The balance of power came down to contests in Missouri and New Hampshire that remain too close to call. Even if Democrats won, they would net only three seats.
Apart from the presidential contest, nothing Tuesday will do as much to shape the political outlook for the next two years as the fight for control of the Senate.
If elected, Democrat Hillary Clinton could have counted on a smoother path with her party in control, especially because Republicans seemed virtually certain to hang on to their majority in the House.
The same would have held true for Trump, who — despite his many differences with party leaders — would have faced a much more difficult time if he won the presidency and faced a Senate in the hands of opposition Democrats.
Whatever the outcome, Tuesday’s results were not expected to ease the partisan infighting or persistent gridlock that has defined Congress in recent years, to the great frustration of many voters.
“I’m hard-pressed to think that Congress will be able to muster much more agreement with themselves or the incoming president,” said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University and expert on Congress.
Republicans have signaled they see little to gain by working with Clinton, should she win election, if that entails compromises that would rile the party’s conservative base. At the same time, their differences with Trump — who broke with party orthodoxy on several issues, including trade and foreign policy — could leave congressional Republicans sharply divided among themselves.
“Most of the ingredients that have created this low-functioning Congress are still in place,” Binder said.
Part of the dysfunction in Congress could be eased if the new president played a more actively bipartisan role, reaching across the aisle much the way former President Bill Clinton did when he faced a Republican-held Congress, some analysts said.
Politically, however, there may be little incentive for the new president to court votes across the aisle after such a deeply polarizing election.
Voters seemed equally skeptical of change.
“I thought Congress would get better when Jesse Helms retired,” said Democrat Mike Pedneau, a retired mental health worker in Raleigh, N.C., referring to his state’s arch-conservative senator, who died in 2008.
“It’s gotten more brittle,” Pedneau said. “I’d almost rather have the other side win it if meant an end to gridlock.”
Republicans began the election cycle with a built-in disadvantage.
The GOP was forced to defend 24 seats versus 10 for the Democrats, and the party’s difficulties were compounded when voters picked Trump as their nominee.
His many controversial and insulting statements forced Republican candidates to either defend or condemn their presidential standard-bearer, antagonizing voters whichever they chose. Some repudiated Trump. Others contorted themselves by saying they would vote for the nominee but not endorse his candidacy.
More significant, Trump failed to invest in the kind of political infrastructure — such as voter identification and turnout operations — that are typically led by a party’s presidential candidate.
“Since Trump hasn’t been running a campaign as much as a concert tour complete with merchandise, many of (the) programs that usually help down-ballot candidates are bare bones or missing entirely,” Jennifer Duffy, a nonpartisan campaign analyst, wrote in the Cook Political Report.
That seemed not to matter, however, as Trump strongly outperformed past Republican presidential nominees in a number of states and especially among rural voters. They needed no prodding to turn out.
Polls waxed and waned through the fall, with Democrats gaining momentum in Senate and House contests as Clinton opened a substantial lead over Trump after his widely panned performance in three presidential debates.
But races tightened again after FBI Director James B. Comey sent a letter to Congress on Oct. 28 saying investigators would review a newly discovered trove of emails connected to Clinton’s private email server as secretary of State. By the time Comey released an allclear letter Sunday, Democrats said several Senate seats had slipped beyond their grasp.
In the House, Republicans held a 247-188 majority, the largest for either party since the 1930s.
Democrats lost control in 2010 and the 30- seat gain they needed to take back the House always appeared well beyond their reach, given district lines that favor sitting lawmakers and shelter most incumbents from serious challenge.