WASHINGTON — Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell won a hard-fought sixth term Tuesday, putting him a step closer to his lifelong dream of becoming majority leader and getting the GOP off to a good start in its goal of taking control of the Senate.
Democrats once had high hopes for challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s young secretary of state. But the hill was too steep in a state President Barack Obama lost by 23 percentage points in 2012.
McConnell, like Republicans in every competitive state, relentlessly tied his opponent to the president, whose approval ratings have sagged. McConnell’s allies taunted Grimes for refusing to say whether she had voted for Obama.
If Republicans gain six new seats, McConnell, 72, is positioned to become the Senate’s majority leader. That would give him substantial powers to decide what legislation reaches the floor for votes, and when.
His supporters eagerly awaited election results in other states, aware that potential runoffs in Louisiana and Georgia, and possible slow vote counts in Alaska, could leave the question of Senate control unclear for some time.
Democrats privately said they hoped to limit their net losses to five seats, which would barely keep them in the majority. But even that would require them to win several races Tuesday where they were struggling.
The GOP seemed certain to pick up three seats where Democratic senators are retiring: in West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana.
Republicans were bullish in Arkansas, where freshman Rep. Tom Cotton aimed to oust two-term Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor. They felt almost as optimistic about ousting Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana – although a Dec. 6 runoff seemed likely. First-term Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska was another top target.
Victories in those six states would give Republicans the Senate majority, provided they don’t lose any seats they now hold. Their biggest worries in that regard were in Georgia and Kansas.
In Georgia, where GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss is retiring, Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican David Perdue were locked in a tight battle.
In Kansas, three-term Republican Sen. Pat Roberts was scrambling to fend off independent candidate Greg Orman, who had persuaded the Democrat to leave the race and help him consolidate anti-Roberts sentiment. Orman hasn’t said which party he will caucus with, however, so a Roberts loss doesn’t automatically endanger the GOP’s chances.
Elsewhere, contests for Democratic-held seats in three closely divided states could prove crucial.
In North Carolina, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan was facing state House speaker Thom Tillis. The race set records for campaign spending, with airwaves drenched in political ads. Obama carried North Carolina in 2008, and lost it in 2012.
In Colorado, first-term Democratic Sen. Mark Udall faced a strong challenge from GOP Rep. Cory Gardner. In New Hampshire, Democrats said they believed Sen. Jeanne Shaheen could hold off Republican Scott Brown, a former senator from Massachusetts.
Few campaigns were as feisty and close as Iowa’s, where longtime Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin is retiring.
Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst was facing Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley in a race that featured TV ads about castrating hogs, and a leaked fundraising video from Texas.
Barring a GOP wave, it’s possible that control of the Senate won’t be known for days or even weeks.
Slow vote counts in Alaska could make Republican Dan Sullivan’s challenge against Begich too close to call for a while. In Louisiana, many expect a Dec. 6 runoff between Landrieu and GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy. And a Jan. 6 Georgia runoff between Perdue and Nunn also was possible.
If a runoff — or a vote recount in any closely contested state — will determine which party controls the Senate, the spending and politicking will be extraordinary.
A Republican takeover of the Senate would be huge politically, but its impact on governing is unclear. Even with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, many of the dynamics that have fed federal gridlock for years would still be present.
Obama could veto legislation passed by a Republican-controlled Congress. And Senate Democrats, if relegated to the minority, could use the filibuster to thwart scores of GOP initiatives, just as Republicans have done to the Democrats for years.
A new Republican Senate majority could be short-lived. The 2016 Senate election map heavily favors Democrats, just as this year’s map was ideal for Republicans.
In 2016, Republicans will be defending seats in seven states that Obama won, and in another three closely divided states. Most of the nine Democrats on the ballot will be solid favorites.