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A few weeks ago, with Hillary Clinton polling high in the presidential race, Democrats were confident they would take control of the Senate. It even appeared there was an outside chance Democrats could win the House of Representatives.
But as election results came in late Tuesday and early Wednesday, it became clear that not only was Clinton headed for a major upset, Republicans would keep majority control over both houses of Congress.
Up for election Tuesday were 34 of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives. With two races undecided, the Republicans will control 51 seats in the Senate, the Democrats 47.
Republicans could see that advantage grow to 53 by the time the new Congress begins in January. In New Hampshire, Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte holds a narrow lead over challenger Maggie Hassan with about 93 percent of the votes counted. Louisiana will hold a runoff election in December, after Republican John Kennedy and Democrat Foster Campbell garnered 25 and 17 percent of the votes respectively.
The Republican majority in the House is likely to decline slightly, but less than public opinion polls had predicted.
The advantages of being in the majority are significant, because the controlling party chairs committees, sets the legislative agenda and runs investigations.
Will ‘gridlock’ ease?
The Republicans’ tight control over both houses of the outgoing Congress resulted in a stalemate on many issues when they opposed President Barack Obama’s policies — the standoff often described as Washington’s political “gridlock.”
One of the new Senate’s first tasks in 2017 is likely to be scrutiny of a nominee to fill a key vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February. Republicans, however, refused to hold hearings or vote on the nomination, saying that with less than a year remaining in Obama’s term, the next president should choose Scalia’s replacement.
Incumbent ousted in Illinois
What may wind up being the Democrats’ lone bright spot Tuesday night was in Illinois, where two-term Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth beat incumbent Mark Steven Kirk by more than 700,000 votes and 15 percentage points.
Duckworth served in the U.S. military in Iraq, where she lost both her legs when her helicopter was shot down by an enemy missile. She intends to make veterans’ concerns one of her priority issues in the Senate.
Kirk attributed his loss to the Democrats’ lead in registered voters in Illinois, the home state of President Obama. The one-term senator had tried to accommodate Democrats’ feelings by refusing to vote for Donald Trump for president, but he erred badly earlier in the campaign by disparaging Duckworth’s mixed-race background.
Florida’s Senator Marco Rubio kept his seat by defeating Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy. Rubio entered the race late, after dropping out of the Republican presidential primaries in the face of withering attacks by the eventual nomination winner, Trump. Tuesday’s win gave Rubio a platform from which he could, if he wishes, mount another bid for the presidency in 2020.
Arizona’s Senator John McCain won his sixth term at age 80, in what possibly was his final campaign. McCain was re-elected without much difficulty, despite early predictions of a competitive race.
New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer may have been looking ahead to the prospect of becoming majority leader in a Democratic Senate. That was not to be, but Schumer nevertheless won easily.
The advantages of incumbency helped assure wins for most of the Senate candidates this year, including Republicans Rand Paul of Kentucky, Rob Portman of Ohio, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, John Boozman of Arkansas, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Tim Scott of South Carolina, John Hoeven of North Dakota, John Thune of South Dakota, Mike Lee of Utah, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Mike Crapo of Idaho and Jerry Moran of Kansas.
The most senior Democrat in the Senate, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, won his race easily, as did fellow Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
Other Democrat incumbents who retained their seats were Patty Murray of Washington state, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Ron Wyden of Oregon. And in a race between two Democrats in California, Kamala Harris defeated Loretta Sanchez.
Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen won an open Senate seat in Maryland, filing the vacancy left by Democrat Barbara Mikulski, who retired. And in Indiana, Republican Congressman Todd Young won a Senate seat left open by the retirement of Republican Dan Coats; Young defeated Democrat Evan Bayh, who had represented his state at the U.S. Capitol once before, but stepped down in 2011.
With the Republicans extending their overall control of the House of Representatives, the only suspense Tuesday night was the size of their majority. As midnight approached in Washington, the Republicans’ House majority was solid, but it appeared likely to slip from 59 seats to about 40 to 45 seats.