While the world was focused on Clinton versus Trump, the balance of power in the Senate was decided. While not all the races are decided at this hour, it is clear that the Republicans will maintain a majority of the U.S. Senate.
The Democrats needed to swing five seats in their favor in order to take the majority of seats (or pick up four seats, with a Democratic White House win where the vice president acts as a tie breaker). The pre-election analysis made six states appear poised to possibly flip from Republican to Democratic: Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. These races were tight and had the power to change the majority party in the chamber.
Here’s how it played out.
How the critical states fared
Illinois Republican incumbent Mark Kirk ran into trouble running against a robust Democratic challenger, Rep. Tammy Duckworth. Duckworth has already created a national image for herself as a fiery double-amputee war veteran. Then a comment Kirk made at a recent debate was received as insensitive and racist. Duckworth winning this state was a pickup for Democrats.
One of the more interesting results of the night came from Wisconsin. In 2010 Republican challenger Ron Johnson defeated Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold. Feingold ran against Johnson this year to try to win back his old seat, and his support looked relatively strong throughout the season. In the end, the Republican incumbent held the seat, perhaps because Republicans rallied for Trump in ways that were not fully detected by the polls.
In Indiana, former Republican Senator and Governor Evan Bayh ran as a Democrat in a tight race and lost to Republican Todd Young. Bayh ran somewhat ahead for much of the race, but the trajectory was not in his favor. In the end, Indiana stays in the Republican column.
North Carolina hosted a narrow race between Republican incumbent Richard Burr and Democratic challenger Deborah Ross, who has served as a state assembly representative. The race had narrowed in recent weeks, but stayed stayed within a margin of error. North Carolina stays red.
Pennsylvania saw Republican incumbent Pat Toomey challenged by Democrat Katie McGlinty. The race was close with McGlinty projected to win. McGlinty was one of the Democrats’ bright hopes this season, against a strongly conservative and fiscal hawk incumbent. Senator Toomey retaining his seat is a part of unpredicted Trump support in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
The Senate election in New Hampshire was too close to call as of this writing. Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte and her challenger, Gov. Maggie Hassan, were practically tied the entire election season. Democrats were optimistic about picking up this seat.
Does Senate majority matter?
The Republicans will keep the majority in the Senate, but it will be a narrow majority.
Having a majority matters because the party with the most seats gets the chair of every committee and subcommittee in the chamber, and the majority of seats on every committee and subcommittee. The majority leader gets to set the chamber’s agenda, which means controlling which legislation comes to the floor and when. Assuming Republicans control of the House, Senate and White House, this may include repeal of Obamacare or strict immigration controls.
But majority status in the Senate is not as important as it is in the House. The norms in the Senate tend more toward deliberation rather than the strong-arming used in the House. For example, the Senate uses procedures like “unanimous consent,” in which all 100 senators must agree about the rules that govern a bill before it comes to the floor. Also, the filibuster means that most bills need 60 votes, a “supermajority,” to come up for a vote on the floor.
Democrats will still hold significant power as the minority party. The minority party in the Senate is significantly more powerful than the minority party in the House, because of what political scientists call “negative agenda control,” or keeping bills you don’t like from passing. As the minority party in the Senate, the Democrats have greater power in the Senate, relative to the House, at preventing legislation to which they are oppose from coming to the floor. Because of that power, majority status means somewhat less in the Senate than it does in the House.
On the other hand, even if neither party has enough votes to “run the table” on any votes in the Senate, the Republican Party has a tremendous advantage now that it controls the Congress and White House. Republicans, for the most part, will not need many Democratic partners to achieve their policy goals.