After Jason Kander conceded in the Missouri Senate race Wednesday morning and the Pennsylvania Senate race was called for incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey, Republicans were all but guaranteed to hold onto their U.S. Senate majority after a nail-biting and contentious race that saw the party defending territory from Missouri to New Hampshire as it battled with its own presidential nominee.
A GOP Senate majority is expected even as the outcome of the presidential race remains uncertain, but Donald Trump appeared on the verge of victory, too, and his stunning performance had perhaps buoyed Republican senators.
Republicans faced a daunting map in 2016 with members forced to defend 24 seats in the cycle –several that Obama won in 2012. Republicans always had a steep climb and that was before they put the bombastic and combative Donald Trump on the top of the their ticket, though as returns came in Tuesday night Trump’s downballot effect was much harder to discern as purely negative.
Republicans managed to hold seats in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Missouri and Indiana Tuesday as Donald Trump won those states at the top of the ticket.
In Indiana Rep. Todd Young managed to take down Democrats’ late game recruit Evan Bayh, who initially led the race by double digits. And in Ohio Portman won by more than 20 points.
Still, it was a fairly surprising outcome in an election that seemed to be brutal this election cycle.
On the campaign trail, Republicans grappled with how to balance their own elections with the sideshow happening in the presidential race. When they were in Washington, Republicans up for re-election faced a constant slew of questions from reporters wondering what they thought of Trump’s latest controversial statement on everything from a border wall to Russian President Vladamir Putin. Most Republicans in tight races didn’t even make an appearance at Trump’s nominating convention in Cleveland, which some warned might devolve into chaos. Even Portman held a off-site events to spend as much time outside of the convention site as possible.
Throughout the cycle, Trump tested his rank-and-file Republicans’ nerves and their patience by disparaging a federal judge’s “Mexican” heritage and attacking a Muslim Gold Star Family. Trump even lodged personal attacks against members who were running in tight primaries, saying that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) wan’t a real war hero because he’d been captured in Vietnam and held for five years as a POW.
But still, most Republican running for re-election held on even as Trump backed away from U.S. commitments to NATO and called for foreign actors to engage in espionage against his opponent. In a notoriously awkward meeting on Capitol Hill, Trump mocked Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and called him a “loser” because Kirk had refused to support him. Mistakenly believing Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) was up for election, he also threatened Arizona’s junior senator.
It wasn’t until a tape surfaced of Trump discussing how he grabbed women by the p***y, that many Republicans pulled their support. Sens. Portman, Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV) all disavowed Trump while Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) stuck with him, fearful that dropping Trump could cost them among their base.
“Donald Trump’s statements were disrespectful and inappropriate, and he was right to apologize,” Blunt said at the time.
Despite it all – a lack of a formal presidential ground game and contentious relationship with the top of the ticket– Republicans came out on top in an election where they were expected to struggle.
There is little doubt that McConnell has the upper hand now no matter who the president will be at the end of the night. And, with a nearly impossible map for Democrats in 2018, McConnell could harness that power for more than two years.