The Republican party consolidated its sway over Washington in Tuesday’s elections, defying predictions by holding on to both houses of Congress and bolstering the power of President-elect Donald Trump.
Although the Democrats had been widely tipped to take the Senate, the Republicans retained 51 seats in the 100 member chamber, fighting off a series of challenges by Democratic contenders.
Since the Republicans also retained control of the House of Representatives, one party now completely controls both the legislative and executive arms of government for the first time since President Barack Obama’s first two years in office in 2009-2011.
The outcome of the Senate race was particularly disappointing to Democrats, who had considered Republican control of the chamber vulnerable this year, since the party was defending 24 seats compared with the Democrats’ 10.
It is likely to deal a fatal blow to Mr Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court, since Senate Republicans have argued the choice should be made by the new president.
Nevertheless the Senate will be the one real check on Mr Trump’s power: nearly all Senate business requires a supermajority of 60 votes to cut off debate.
Mr Obama was repeatedly stymied by Republican filibusters — unending debate that eventually kills legislation — and Senate Democrats can be expected to use the tactic against efforts to reverse the departing president’s signature measures, notably healthcare reform.
The Congressional results mean that House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell — both of whom have had uneasy relations with Mr Trump — will be the president-elect’s chief partners in pushing legislation through.
While Mr Ryan could pursue a distinct agenda from the president-elect, Mr McConnell may hold the key to making progress on tax reform, infrastructure spending and other legislative priorities.
“Mitch McConnell wants to be known as an effective congressional leader,” said Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman turned lobbyist. “He wants to accomplish things.”
The party’s control of the Senate was confirmed when Patrick Toomey, the incumbent senator for Pennsylvania, narrowly beat back a challenge by Katie McGinty, the Democratic candidate, in one of the most expensive state races in the country.
He, like other successful Republican candidates, sought to distinguish himself from Mr Trump and win over moderate voters. But several also benefited from the surge of white working-class support that helped Mr Trump to his shock victory.
Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, was also re-elected in a tough fight, while Senator Marco Rubio, beaten by Mr Trump in the bad-tempered primary campaign for the Republican nomination, overcame his Democratic rival Patrick Murphy in Florida.
Similar stories unfolded elsewhere. In Indiana, former senator Evan Bayh was defeated in his attempt to regain his seat for the Democrats. Mr Bayh, who held the seat until 2010, was hurt by his post-Senate career as a lobbyist, losing to Representative Todd Young.
In a battle of current and former Wisconsin senators, incumbent Republican Ron Johnson beat Democrat Russ Feingold, who previously served in the upper chamber.
However, the Democrats picked up one senate seat in Illinois, where Tammy Duckworth was elected with 54 per cent of the vote. She defeated incumbent senator Mark Kirk, marking the party’s only net gain of the night. Mr Kirk was the first Republican senator to come out against Mr Trump.
Ms Duckworth, a Purple Heart decorated veteran who lost her legs while piloting a helicopter in Iraq in 2004, had been favourite to win, having accelerated her lead in the polls to more than 13 points in the days ahead of the vote, according to Real Clear Politics.
Democrats also hung on to a seat in Nevada that became vacant with the retirement of Senate minority leader Harry Reid.
At 7am EST, the Senate tally stood at 51 Republicans and 45 Democrats, with two seats to be announced. The Senate also includes two independents, who both tend to vote with the Democrats.
The result had yet to be called in New Hampshire, where Republican candidate Kelly Ayotte and Democrat Maggie Hassan were split by just a few hundred votes. The Louisiana Senate race will go through to a second round in December, a feature of the southern state’s system.
The Republicans came into the election with a majority of 59 in the House of Representatives, which would have required a substantial wave in the direction of the Democrats to be overturned. However, the Democrats had hoped to pick up a large number of seats to whittle down the Republican majority.
Instead, by 7am EST the Democrats had gained a net five seats in the House. In one of the few bright notes of the evening for the Democrats, Stephanie Murphy won the Florida 7th district, defeating John Mica who had been in Congress for 24 years.
Republicans may also get an opportunity to increase their Senate advantage in two years’ time. In 2018, five seats held by Democrats in reliably Republican states — Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia — will be on the ballot.
Democrats also will have three swing state seats to defend. “The maths simply isn’t good for them,” Mr Weber said.
Additional reporting by Lindsay Whipp in Chicago
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