WASHINGTON (AP) — Control of the Senate was up for grabs Tuesday as Republicans’ hopes of protecting their narrow majority in an unpredictable election rested on a handful of states that were toss-ups until the end.
GOP incumbents around the country faced energized Democratic challengers trying to oust them in costly and caustic battles shadowed every step of the way by the polarizing presidential race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
As voting progressed Tuesday, it looked like it could go either way in GOP-held North Carolina, Missouri, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Indiana. The race was also razor-close in Nevada, the one Democratic-held seat that was hotly contested this election, where Minority Leader Harry Reid was retiring after five terms.
Republicans hold a 54-46 majority in the Senate, including two independent senators who caucus with the Democrats. That means Democrats needed to pick up just four seats to take the majority if Clinton wins the White House and can send her vice president to cast tie-breaking votes, or five seats if Trump wins. The GOP retook the majority just two years ago.
Democrats were counting on two likely pick-ups in Wisconsin and Illinois, though in Wisconsin polls tightened in recent weeks in favor of GOP Sen. Ron Johnson. But Ohio and Arizona, forecast to be competitive early on, turned into walks for the GOP incumbents, Rob Portman and John McCain.
Throughout the campaign the Senate races provided repeated moments of drama, not least as GOP candidates grappled with sharing a ticket with Trump. That tripped up Sen. Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire after she asserted at one point that Trump could “absolutely” be a role model for the nation’s youth.
Ayotte quickly retracted, then went on to renounce her endorsement of Trump after audio emerged last month of him boasting of getting away with groping women. But damage was done with GOP voters, and it didn’t stop Ayotte’s opponent, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, from trying to tie Ayotte to Trump throughout the campaign.
In Nevada, GOP Rep. Joe Heck un-endorsed Trump to boos after the groping audio, but later seemed to backtrack. He ended the campaign refusing to say whether or not he’d vote for Trump. Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, too, kept voters in suspense until the end about who he would vote for.
There were poignant moments, too.
McCain, at age 80, was seeking his sixth term in quite possibly his final campaign. The 2008 GOP presidential nominee struck a reflective note in a final pre-election rally in Prescott, Arizona, the same place his Senate predecessor, Barry Goldwater, began his Senate and presidential campaigns.
“While as Yogi Berra said, ‘I hate to make predictions, especially about the future,’ I’m not sure how many more I have in me,” McCain said. “It’s fair to say, then, that tonight is very meaningful to me.”
With Senate races down to the wire in a half-dozen states, any one of them could end up determining Senate control. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on both sides by the party committees, special interests, and super PACs aligned with the Senate leaders, Reid and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Republicans faced hurdles from the outset, starting with an unfavorable map that had the GOP defending 24 seats, including several in Democratic territory, compared to 10 for the Democrats.
North Carolina and Missouri were two GOP-friendly states that were never supposed to be this competitive. Missouri furnished one of the most compelling races of the season thanks to Democratic hopeful Jason Kander, who drew attention and praise from both parties in his challenge to GOP Sen. Roy Blunt. Kander, a young military veteran, ran an ad in which he assembled an assault rifle blindfolded and challenged Blunt to do the same.
In Nevada and elsewhere, Democrats’ closing message involved trying to tie their GOP opponents to Trump one last time.
Democratic hopeful Catherine Cortez Masto said Trump’s “message of hate” was helping turn out Latinos in Nevada to vote for her and Clinton.
In Florida, GOP Sen. Marco Rubio seemed to have a lead over Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, who was abandoned by his own party after Democratic bosses decided to pull ad money from expensive Florida and invest it in Missouri, North Carolina and Indiana, instead.
It was a different story in Indiana, where another star recruit, Evan Bayh, former Democratic governor and senator, was struggling in his comeback bid against Republican Rep. Todd Young. That race was another toss-up.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington and Russ Contreras in Las Vegas contributed to this report.