Trump tide helps Republicans control House, Senate

KHOU 11's Doug Delony reports from the Watch Desk

Democrats' hopes of winning a Senate majority appeared lost Tuesday as Republicans kept their seats in Indiana, North Carolina and Wisconsin and were leading hard-fought races to retain their seats in Missouri and New Hampshire.

Democrats picked up a seat in Illinois and were ahead in Pennsylvania and Nevada, where they were fighting to hold the seat held for 30 years by Sen. Harry Reid.

Democrats needed a net gain of five seats to win a majority, or four seats to split the Senate 50-50. In the event of an evenly divided Senate, the party that wins the White House would effectively win the Senate majority since the vice president acts as the tie-breaking vote.

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Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth ousted Republican Sen. Mark Kirk in Illinois. Duckworth, who was first elected to the House in 2012, lost both of her legs in combat in Iraq; Kirk suffered a stroke during his only term in the Senate.

Democrats also were leading in Pennsylvania, with former state environmental chief Katie McGinty ahead of Republican Sen. Pat Toomey. In Nevada, Democratic former attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto was leading Republican Rep. Joe Heck in early returns as they competed for the open seat of retiring Senate Minority Leader Reid.

In Indiana, Republican Rep. Todd Young beat two-term former senator Evan Bayh for an open seat created by the retirement of GOP Sen. Dan Coats. Bayh was a late entrant to the race and had an early lead in polls. And in North Carolina, GOP Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, defeated Democratic former state representative Deborah Ross.

But the most unexpected victory for Republicans was in Wisconsin, where GOP Sen. Ron Johnson won a rematch against Democratic former Sen. Russ Feingold, who had led Johnson by double digits in polls just a few weeks ago.

The party that controls the Senate will help determine whether the new president can push his or her agenda through Congress for the next two years. If the early trend holds, the Republicans would maintain control, which would give them power over both chambers of Congress for another two years. If Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump wins, the GOP will hold the executive and legislative branches.

Democrats believed they could wrench the majority away from Republicans because the GOP had so many more seats to defend this year. There were 24 Republican-held seats on state ballots Tuesday and only 10 Democratic-held seats.

There was at least one state, Louisiana, where the outcome of the Senate election may not be known for weeks.

In Louisiana, there were 24 candidates vying to fill the open seat of retiring Republican Sen. David Vitter. Unless one of them received at least 50% of the vote, which is unlikely, there will be a runoff between the top two vote-getters on Dec. 10. Republicans are expected to keep the seat.

Republicans maintain control of the House

Republicans maintained control of the House of Representatives with several candidates buoyed by the surge in votes for Donald Trump.

Democrats needed to gain 30 seats to seize control of the House. That’s was always an unlikely outcome, Congress watchers agreed.

“That would mean an unbelievable night,” said Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of its Elections Research Center.

By 1:45 a.m., Republicans had won 231 seats to 176 for Democrats. It takes 218 to claim the majority.

Upsetting the Republicans would have required a huge win on Hillary Clinton’s part, on the order of a double-digit margin of victory for her to lift the rest of the party’s candidates, Burden said.  Early Wednesday, Trump had beaten or led Clinton in several battleground states, eliminating any chance that she could sweep other Democrats into office with her. Instead, it appeared it was Trump's momentum that lifted several GOP House members.

The Democrats’ other dilemma: They received more votes overall nationally in 2014, but still lost seats – largely because they ran up the score in safe districts.

Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a political science professor at George Washington University, agreed that a loss of fewer than 10 seats would be a net positive for Republicans.

"If GOP losses are kept below 10 seats, it'll be consistent with a GOP electorate that turned out for Trump and all the way down the ticket," Binder said. "And that's typical American electoral politics of late – strong party voting up and down the ticket."

In Florida, Republicans held on to two competitive seats, but lost one. In an open seat in eastern Florida, including part of Palm Beach County, Brian Mast defeated Democrat Randy Perkins after the Democratic incumbent Patrick Murphy opted to run for the Senate. Murphy lost to Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. In another closely watched race, the incumbent Republican Carlos Curbelo held off Democrat Joe Garcia in South Florida.

But in the Orlando area, Democrat Stephanie Murphy beat 12-term incumbent John Mica, a fixture in Florida politics. The district boundaries were redrawn last year and held fewer Republicans.

Also in Florida's St. Petersburg area, former governor Charlie Crist, a one-time Republican and then Independent who ran as a Democrat in Tuesday's election, helped the Democrats pick up one seat in the House. Crist beat Republican incumbent David Jolly.

As expected, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin  won his race and tweeted that Republicans planned to move ahead with their agenda.

Republicans, based on their campaign ads, focused on local issues, Binder said in an email. While Democrats attempted to “nationalize” races by linking Republicans to Donald Trump. That strategy backfired as Trump rolled to wins in the south and Midwest.

That was the case in Wisconsin where Republican Rep. Reid Ribble, from the Green Bay area, was a member of the 'Never Trump' club. He did not seek re-election. But Republican Mike Gallagher rode the Trump wave in northeastern Wisconsin to win the open seat.

And Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., won an expensive race against her Democratic challenger LuAnn Bennett in their suburban Washington district. That race saw the two candidates saturate the airwaves with advertisements in the closing weeks of the race. Ads for Bennett sought to link Comstock to Trump. Comstock held a comfortable margin of 54% to 46% with virtually all the ballots counted.

Elsewhere, in New York, Republican incumbent John Katko, a freshman, held off a challenge from Democrat Colleen Deacon in another closely watched race in the central part of the state.

Binder looked to telling races between two Republican incumbents on opposite coasts: Scott Garrett in New Jersey and Darrell Issa in California. Garrett lost his race to Democrat Joshua Gottheimer in northern New Jersey. Issa led Doug Applegate, the Democrat and retired Marine Corps colonel.

“Those are both good bellwethers of whether prominent incumbents can insulate themselves from a blue tide – to the extent that there is one,” she said.

In the end, the tide was Trump red, and it pushed the GOP to a new House majority.


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