Republicans and Democrats traded Senate seat pickups Tuesday, but control of the chamber was still very much in doubt as the clock ticked over into Wednesday.
Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican, was ousted in Colorado, while Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat, lost his seat in Alabama.
The two parties held serve elsewhere in early returns, with Democrats winning along the mid-Atlantic and Republicans defending seats throughout much of the heartland.
That included Iowa, where Sen. Joni Ernst fended off a stiff challenge. In North Carolina, Sen. Thom Tillis claimed victory, holding a 2-point lead with nearly all ballots counted. His opponent hadn’t conceded.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the top-ranking Republican on Capitol Hill, won a seventh term and handily fended off a challenge by Democrat Amy McGrath, despite being vastly outspent.
Money flowed to Ms. McGrath from Democrats across the country eager to oust the man who sidelined their attempt to impeach President Trump, then pushed through his third Supreme Court nominee just a week ago.
“Democrats threw everything they had at him and he vanquished his opponent in typical fashion,” said Sen. Todd Young, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham also won a fourth term in South Carolina, Sen. John Cornyn emerged victorious in Texas, and Rep. Roger Marshall held onto a seat of a retiring Republican in Kansas — though the fact that Republican victories in those states were headline-worthy suggested just how tough the map was for the GOP.
In North Carolina, with almost all votes counted, Mr. Tillis held a narrow lead over Democrat Cal Cunningham, who saw his lead in opinion polls evaporate after he admitted to an extramarital entangle with the wife of a disabled veteran. That was a serious black mark for Mr. Cunningham, an officer in the Army Reserve, who now faces a military investigation.
In Arizona, with about 75% of the votes counted, GOP Sen. Martha McSally was trailing Mark Kelly, who was running his first race although he’s no stranger to politics. He’s married to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who after surviving an gunman’s attack on her outdoor town hall gathering in 2011 became a prominent gun control advocate.
Should that result hold, Ms. McSally will have lost Senate races in 2018 and 2020.
Mr. Kelly didn’t exactly claim victory Tuesday, but came close.
“I’m also confident that when the votes are counted, we’re going to be successful in this mission,” he said at his post-election party, holding a nearly 10-point lead with about three-fourths of the vote counted.
In Maine, GOP Sen. Susan Collins was leading by about 7 points with about three-quarters of the vote counted.
Other key races in Georgia, Michigan, Montana and Alaska, which were expected to decide control of the chamber, were too close to call early Wednesday.
And analysts said it’s possible final tallies of control of the Senate won’t be known until next year.
One special Senate election in Georgia is headed for a January runoff after no candidate cleared 50%. In the state’s other Senate seat, GOP Sen. David Perdue was leading in returns Tuesday, but analysts had not called the race and if no candidate tops 50%, that seat too would face a January runoff.
At his victory party, Mr. McConnell called for Washington to seek a cooler temperature than has prevailed in recent years.
“Our country is going to get back on our feet. Our nation has real challenges and real adversaries, but our fellow citizens are not our enemies,” he said.
He also warned against radical changes to the way government operates, seemingly cautioning Democrats against overreaching after the Supreme Court fight.
“This is no time to declare war on our institutions because one side is angry,” he said.
Republicans went into the night holding 53 seats, but most election prognosticators were betting on Democrats to emerge with at least 50 seats, and even Mr. McConnell said the GOP’s chances were only 50-50 to maintain control.
“We have a lot of exposure,” he said last week on the campaign trail.
Indeed, of the 35 seats up on Tuesday, 23 were held by Republicans.
That map was partly a vestige of their successes six years ago, when they captured Democrat-held seats in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia.
Five of those seats were in play this year.
Democrats fielded a particularly strong crop of candidates in 2020, including two former governors and presidential candidates who ran in Montana and Colorado, the state House speaker in Maine, a dynamic former state party chairman in South Carolina, and a literal astronaut in Arizona.
The Democratic candidates also enjoyed a massive cash advantage. In a list of 12 competitive GOP-held seats, the Democrat raised more than the incumbent in 10 of them.
Republicans, meanwhile, saw their biggest advantage — a roaring economy — disappear earlier this year amid the coronavirus crisis.
As the virus death toll mounted, suddenly races from Alaska to Maine were in play, leaving both Republican freshmen and longtime incumbents in danger.
In Colorado, most analysts said Mr. Gardner, a freshman, was a goner the moment Mr. Hickenlooper, a former governor, entered the race — a decision he made after ending his ill-fated run at Democrats’ presidential nomination.
“Being a ‘yes man’ for Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell sealed Cory Gardner’s fate long ago and tonight Colorado voters made it official,” said J.B. Poersch, president of the Senate Majority Political Action Committee, a Democratic campaign outfit.
The other side of that coin was Alabama, where Mr. Jones, a Democrat, won a special election in 2017, then proceeded to post a fairly liberal voting record in a red state.
When Mr. Jones voted against both Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and Justice Amy Coney Barrett, analysts said he had little chance of keeping that seat for Democrats.
His GOP opponent, Tommy Tuberville, despite being a political newcomer, has massive name recognition in the state as the former football coach at Auburn University.
The Supreme Court battles may have helped Mr. Graham win.
He was facing his toughest political challenge from Jaime Harrison, a former Democratic Party chairman in South Carolina.
But as chairman of the Judiciary Committee Mr. Graham shepherded Justice Barrett through his panel last month, earning massive airtime and headlines that analysts say helped him consolidate the GOP vote in his state.