News & Politics

Republicans Cling to Control of the U.S. Senate Despite Trump's Unpopularity — Here's What They'll Do with that Power

They lost the House — but the Senate is key to many of their ambitions.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

Just as many pollsters and political analysts were predicting, Republicans kept the United States Senate but lost the House of Representatives on November 6, 2018. Democrats’ House victory over Republicans was decisive: on Election Night, Democrats had taken at least 28 House seats from Republicans—and with the votes still being counted in about a dozen districts, Democrats stand to increase that number to around 35-40. But in the Senate, Republicans appear to have increased their majority by least two seats, if not three.

President Donald Trump’s agenda was clearly rejected in a long list of House races, but his relentless campaigning on behalf of Republicans in high-profile Senate races seems to have worked with rural voters. In the Senate, at least three Democrats were voted out of office on Tuesday: Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Claire McCaskill in Missouri. And that would have been a three-seat gain for Republicans. But in Nevada’s Senate race, Democrats captured a GOP-held seat when Democrat Jacky Rosen triumphed over incumbent Republican Sen. Dean Heller.

The Nevada Senate race became a referendum on Trumpism, with the president campaigning for Heller and former President Barack Obama stumping for Rosen. And Nevada voters obviously agreed with Obama rather than Trump: Rosen won by 5%.

However, the Senates races in two other important swing states—Florida and Arizona—remain unresolved, as of early Thursday afternoon, November 8. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott appears to have enjoyed a narrow victory over incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. “Narrow” is definitely the operative word: the vote count showed 50.2% for Scott compared to 49.8% for Nelson, who has asked for a recount.

Another major nail-biter has been the Arizona Senate race. Republican Martha McSally and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema have been competing for the seat presently held by Sen. Jeff Flake, who has often been critical of Trump and isn’t seeking re-election. Democrats were hoping to flip that GOP-held seat, but on November 7—with 99% of the vote counted—McSally appeared to have a slim 1% lead. On November 1, Green Party candidate Angela Green dropped out of the race and endorsed Sinema, but by that point, about 60% of Arizona residents had already voted by absentee ballot—and on Election Day, the vote count showed Green picking up 2% of the vote. A Washington Post headline on November 7 read “Ex-Green Party Candidate Earns More Votes Than Difference Between Sinema, McSally.”

On Wednesday night, November 7, the Arizona GOP filed a lawsuit to challenge the way some counties in that state count mail-in ballots. Democrats are alleging that Republicans in Arizona are making an attempt at voter suppression, asserting that uncounted ballots dropped out just before Election Day are likely to favor Sinema.

Not taking Arizona, Mississippi or Florida into consideration, Republicans have so far increased their majority by two seats in the Senate. But that number could either increase or decrease, depending on what ultimately happens in those three states.

Mississippi’s Senate race is heading for a November 27 runoff, with Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith having only a 1% lead over Democrat Mike Espy. So Mississippi remains unresolved as well. And in a best-case scenario for Democrats—one in which Sinema, Nelson and Espy all prevailed—the GOP’s two-seat gain in the Senate would disappear. As pollster Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com put it on November 7, the GOP’s “net gain” in the Senate “could be anywhere from zero to three when the races in Arizona, Florida and Mississippi get resolved.”

With the GOP having slightly increased its Senate majority, President Trump will have an easier time with federal judicial appointments—including nominations for the U.S. Supreme Court, which now has a far-right majority with the appointment of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. Trump has promised the fundamentalist Christian Right that he will only nominate justices who are far-right “strict constructionists” or “originalists” in the vein of Justice Clarence Thomas and the late Ronald Reagan appointee Antonin Scalia. And he kept his word with the appointments of Kavanaugh and Justice Neil Gorsuch.

If any more High Court seats become available in 2019 or 2020, the Supreme Court could move even further to the right thanks to an expanded GOP majority in the  Senate. And we’ll know just how much Republicans have expanded their Senate majority when there is a final word with the races in Arizona, Mississippi and Florida.

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Alex Henderson is a news writer at AlterNet and veteran political journalist. His work has also appeared in Salon, Raw Story, Truthdig, National Memo, Philadelphia Weekly, Democratic Underground, L.A. Weekly, MintPress News and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.