U.S. Senate control too close to call as multiple states grapple with tight vote counts

By: , and - November 8, 2022 12:59 pm
President Manchin at work

“If we lose the House and Senate, it’s going to be a horrible two years,” Biden said. “The good news is I’ll have a veto pen.” (Photo by Kyle Mills on Unsplash)

WASHINGTON —  Control of the U.S. Senate remained unclear early Wednesday as races in Nevada and a handful of other states in the midterm elections were still too close to call, and it appeared it might be days — or even weeks — before a final result was known.

But Democrats flipped the open Pennsylvania Senate seat, which Republicans have held for years, signaling the party may hold onto the Senate for another two years, though likely with a narrow majority.  Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat, defeated celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz, a Republican, with 50% of the vote compared to Oz’s 48%. The seat opened up after Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey announced he’d retire at the end of this Congress, increasing its competitiveness and leading Democrats to hope they could pick it up.

Among the tightest contests still underway:

  • In Nevada, Republican Adam Laxalt had a slight lead over incumbent Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto. The race is one of the closest in the country and could end up determining control of the U.S. Senate.
  • Georgia Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and former professional football player and GOP nominee Herschel Walker remained locked in a dead heat in the Peach State, sending that race to a runoff contest next month if neither can get past 50% of the vote.
  • Wisconsin Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson held a narrow lead over Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes in a state Democrats vehemently hope to pick up.
  • In Arizona, Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly was up with 57% over Republican Blake Masters’ 40% with about half of the state’s votes counted.

Early Senate victors

While those four races may not be called yet, both parties cheered their victories in other U.S. Senate races following calls by The Associated Press that their candidates had won. The Senate is now evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting deciding votes.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan held onto her seat in her first reelection bid, defeating Republican nominee Don Bolduc. And in Colorado, Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet staved off a challenge from Republican nominee Joe O’Dea to keep that seat blue.

Republicans held onto Florida, where U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio defeated a challenge from Democratic nominee Rep. Val Demings. The GOP kept control of one Ohio seat, with Republican candidate J.D. Vance beating out Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan for the seat currently held by retiring Sen. Rob Portman.

In Iowa, Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, who was first elected to Congress in 1974 before becoming a senator in 1980, defeated Michael Franken, securing an eighth term in the Senate.

Republican U.S. Rep. Ted Budd defeated state Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley, a Democrat, to keep North Carolina’s open seat safely red for another six years.

Since just one-third of U.S. Senate seats were up for reelection this year, 36 Democrats and 29 Republicans didn’t face voters Tuesday. And many of the senators up for reelection were in safe states, leaving voters in just a handful of races to determine control of the chamber.

Georgians could be the deciders. Again.

Depending on how the undetermined races shake out, control of the U.S. Senate may not be decided until December, if Georgia goes to a runoff election.

Two years ago, control of the U.S. Senate came down to Georgia, when its races went into runoffs before voters elected Sen. Jon Ossoff, the state’s first Jewish senator, and Sen. Raphael Warnock, its first Black senator.

Ossoff was elected to a full six-year term, but Warnock is facing voters again since 2018 was a special election triggered by former Georgia U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s resignation.

Runoff elections take place four weeks after Election Day, so Georgia voters would head to the polls again Dec. 6.

Georgia and the other uncalled races were among the most competitive in the country.

Biden ‘optimistic’

President Joe Biden has been hopeful about Democrats’ chances of holding onto the U.S. Senate in the days leading up to the election, saying Monday night that he was “optimistic.”

“I think we’ll win the Senate, and I think the House is tougher,” Biden said on the South Lawn of the White House.

If Republicans do regain control of the U.S. Senate, their relationship with the Biden administration is likely to change, though it’s not clear by how much.

Biden cautioned Friday that he’s prepared to reject any party-line bills a Republican-controlled Congress could send to his desk, should the GOP regain control.

“If we lose the House and Senate, it’s going to be a horrible two years,” Biden said at a Democratic finance reception at the Loews Chicago O’Hare Hotel. “The good news is I’ll have a veto pen.”

Republican priorities

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has shared very little about what a Republican U.S. Senate would do with the next two years.

McConnell opted not to release a campaign platform ahead of the elections, the way House Republicans did with their so-called Commitment to America, a one-page document that briefly outlined the types of bills the House GOP planned to bring to the floor if they regained control of that chamber.

McConnell largely rebuffed the campaign platform that National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott, a Florida Republican, released earlier this year, saying if “we’re fortunate enough to have the majority next year, I’ll be the majority leader. I’ll decide in consultation with my members what to put on the floor.”

McConnell and several other Senate Republicans also largely rejected the idea the party would bring up nationwide abortion legislation in September when South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham released a 15-week national ban with exceptions after that gestational age for rape, incest, or the life of the pregnant patient.

“I think most of the members of my conference prefer that this be dealt with at the state level,” McConnell said on Sept. 13.

One of the first significant tests for Republicans, if they officially take over in January, will be to determine how they can work with the Biden administration to fund the government and raise the nation’s debt limit to avoid a default sometime next year.

The government funding deadline will likely hit on Sept. 30, 2023 when the federal fiscal year ends, though the debt limit might need congressional action before then if the Treasury Department reaches its $31.4 trillion borrowing limit.

Senate Republicans opted not to lend any votes to the first debt limit bill needed during the Biden administration, helping Democrats to get past the legislative filibuster, but not to actually pass the measure.

And key House Republicans, including Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican and likely the next speaker, have indicated they’ll use the debt limit as leverage to get spending cuts.

Nominations potentially in jeopardy

Aside from legislative debates, a Republican U.S. Senate would have a significant impact on the Biden administration’s executive and judicial nominations, which have largely sailed through that chamber under Democratic control.

Iowa’s Grassley, who is expected to resume his place as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that “under a Republican majority, nominees will receive more thorough scrutiny than they have for the last two years.”

“We’ll certainly stop being complacent rubber stamps for President Biden’s picks like Democrats have been, especially when the nominees are overtly political,” Grassley added.

McConnell became notorious in 2016 for holding up former President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland — who is now attorney general — to the U.S. Supreme Court ahead of the presidential election.

The move was followed by then-President Donald Trump nominating three justices to the court, giving the one-term president’s nominees control of one-third of the bench.

With two years left in Biden’s first term, any future Supreme Court nominees would now be subject to approval, or blockade, if voters elect a Republican U.S. Senate.

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Jennifer Shutt
Jennifer Shutt

Jennifer covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include congressional policy, politics and legal challenges with a focus on health care, unemployment, housing and aid to families.

Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance.

Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.