In the final weeks leading up to the midterms, the handful of Senate races deciding chamber control was a collective jump ball.
The polling trendlines swooped, dove, tangled and all ended up just a few points apart. The fundraising emails got increasingly desperate: “I didn’t want to send this email”; “my race is a TOSS UP”; “which side are you on?” Thousands of momentum pieces popped up, most speculating about a red wave. Campaigns pulled out the big guns for last-minute rallies, and advocates told the perennially online and anxious to IGNORE THE POLLS and KNOCK ON SOME DOORS.
Out of this stew, perfectly seasoned to raise the blood pressure of panic-prone Democrats everywhere, the party emerged triumphant. They’ve secured at least another bare majority, with 50 seats and Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Herschel Walker are headed to a December runoff, where Democrats have the chance to slightly widen their margin.
Democrats were pushed over the top when the Nevada race was called for Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) Saturday night. Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) had reclaimed his seat the day before.
Such a win was far from a given. Democrats were competing in the first midterm election since President Joe Biden won the White House — a cycle where, according to history and conventional wisdom, the party of the President in power almost always performs poorly. And Democrats had to defend some seriously competitive terrain: a New Hampshire seat the incumbent originally won by just over 1,000 votes, a Nevada race polling as a dead tie, a Pennsylvania race knocked off kilter when the Democratic nominee suffered a stroke mid-campaign.
Those races all ended up being won by Democrats; the Pennsylvania contest saw John Fetterman (D) replace a retiring Republican, the first time the Democrats gained a Senate seat in a midterm while also occupying the White House since 1964.
And, at times, the Republican-favoring headwinds were brutal. Spiking inflation and gas prices handed Republicans an anti-administration cudgel, even while they offered no remedies of their own. Many large media outlets willingly absorbed and regurgitated Republican talking points on a supposed explosion of crime, in turn making voters much more concerned about the often nuanced and conflicting data.
But Democrats caught some breaks too. An abysmal cast of Republican candidates — a football player with a history of violence, mental illness and a cast of secret children, a TV doctor-turned-carpetbagger, a candid election denier conspiracy theorist — made winnable races excruciatingly close, or gave Democrats the edge. And this summer, the heavily right-wing Supreme Court overturned the 50-year constitutionally enshrined right to an abortion, sending a frisson of outrage and shock through a majority of the country.
One of the marquee races didn’t even end up being very close: The networks called the Pennsylvania race for Fetterman, now senator-elect, just after midnight Wednesday morning. He’ll finish around five points ahead of Mehmet Oz.
Unless Democrats buck expectations again and end up winning the House, Republicans seem headed for a slight majority. But if given the choice, the Senate is likely the chamber Democrats would choose to keep. Granted, losing the lower chamber would send legislating grinding to a halt. But Senate Democrats will continue confirming judges and executive branch nominees apace. And should a Supreme Court vacancy arise, they’ll get to confirm a successor, with no risk of Mitch McConnell pulling a Merrick Garland redux.
Especially for a party braced for a GOP bloodbath, it’s a serious, history-defying victory.