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Senate Gains Give McConnell a Double Win

Senate Gains Give McConnell a Double Win

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - November 5, 2014

With victories ranging from the now solidly Republican state of Arkansas to heavily Democratic Colorado, the Republican Party last night secured the majority in the U.S. Senate that has eluded it in recent elections. The GOP’s quality of candidates and its expansion of already favorable terrain -- combined with a president who proved a liability to his fellow Democrats -- flipped the electoral map.

Republicans gained eight Senate seats Tuesday night (though Democratic incumbent Mark Begich has yet to concede, despite trailing, in Alaska, and a December runoff is scheduled in Louisiana), while also depriving Democrats of precious pickup opportunities by retaining GOP incumbents in Georgia, Kansas, and Kentucky.

The Bluegrass State was really where the night began and ended. There, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell roundly defeated Democratic upstart Alison Lundergan Grimes by 15 percentage points. McConnell’s re-election campaign was more than just a bid for a sixth term. Victory brought him one step closer to the majority leader title he has long coveted. And as the Empire State Building was bathed in red light close to midnight, the spotlight returned to McConnell, who had finally secured his spot in history.

McConnell seemed to already sense the dual triumphs earlier in the evening. In his victory speech, delivered soon after the polls closed, he looked beyond Kentucky to the heavy lifting that awaits him in Washington.

McConnell demonstrated an awareness of the task ahead, as exit polls showed that voters’ top concern is the economy. Will the new majority leader be the dealmaker he has been in the past, knowing a difficult map in the presidential year awaits his party in 2016? Or, with Republicans in both chambers emboldened by wins across the country, would he be a deal breaker?

“We do have an obligation to work together on issues on which we agree,” he told supporters in Louisville. “I think I’ve shown that to be true in critical times in the past. I hope the president gives me the chance to show it again.”

He added: “Just because we have a two-party system doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict.”

After an election largely devoid of detailed policy debates, Republicans are now tasked with crafting an agenda for governing. McConnell and congressional leaders will meet at the White House on Friday to discuss several issues facing the lame-duck and then the new GOP-led Congress. Immigration reform, the Keystone pipeline, tax reform and executive nominations, among other matters, await lawmakers. This $4 billion midterm election, with most of that money spent on negative ads, hardly seemed tailored to alleviating gridlock in Washington. But the midterms did offer a sharp rebuke of the president, who was radioactive to most candidates of his own party. And Republicans also know they have their own presidential race coming up, with a long slate of candidates and a very different electorate that must be appealed to.

The Senate was Republicans’ to lose heading into Election Day. And by midnight, the party had at least 52 seats on its side. Still, there were several surprises that propelled them to victory.

While most projections showed a likely January runoff for Georgia’s open Senate seat, Republican businessman David Perdue avoided that by defeating top Democratic recruit Michelle Nunn by 10 points.

Nunn was one of several vaunted Democrats who lost on Tuesday despite running on their once durable family political brands. In Arkansas, two-term Sen. Mark Pryor fell to freshman Republican Rep. Tom Cotton in a race that all but signaled extinction for Democrats in the state. The Arkansas contest represented a tough loss for Bill Clinton, who campaigned several times for Democrats in his home state.

Mary Landrieu has hung on, for now, in Louisiana, but faces a Dec. 6 runoff against Bill Cassidy. The runoff is expected to favor the Republican, however.

One of the bigger upsets of the night took place in Colorado, where Democrats’ so-called “war on women” playbook failed to protect (and may have harmed) incumbent Mark Udall. Republican Rep. Cory Gardner proved to be his party’s golden boy of this cycle, delivering a seven-point victory in a state Obama won twice.

Similarly, Republican Joni Ernst won an open seat in Iowa with catchy ads and sharp retail campaign skills. Democrat Bruce Braley made mistakes early in the campaign, and the general political climate only hurt him further. The Iowa loss was particularly harsh, given that the state propelled Obama to presidential prominence in 2008 and backed him again in 2012.

Democrats also suffered an upset in North Carolina, where the president’s unpopularity proved to be more toxic for them than the polarizing state legislature was for Republicans. State House Speaker Thom Tillis won the Tar Heel State by just two points in one of the closest contests of the night.

One of the few bright spots for Democrats came in New Hampshire, where Jeanne Shaheen held off Scott Brown by a few thousand votes. Exit polling showed that carpetbagger charges harmed Brown, who represented Massachusetts in the Senate just two years ago. Obama won New Hampshire twice, and Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan held on there too.

Democrats kept an open seat in Michigan in their corner with the election of Rep. Gary Peters. And Sen. Al Franken won re-election in Minnesota.

The party also held on in Virginia, but just barely (the closeness of the race was one of the biggest surprises of the night). Mark Warner won with just a few thousand votes in a race that went late into the night.

Democrats sought to manage expectations by citing the makeup of the midterm electorate, the history of the president’s party losing seats in his sixth year, and a difficult path to victory that ran through red states. But losses in Colorado and Iowa and even North Carolina challenged that narrative. The close races in Virginia and New Hampshire also signaled GOP momentum.

The big question now is whether Mitch McConnell and his restive Republican majority can sustain it. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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