Democrats are projected to hold onto their narrow Senate majority after Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto eked out a win in Nevada Saturday night, beating back a furious challenge from Republicans who sought to seize on voters’ growing economic and political angst in an effort to upend unified Democratic control of Washington.
The outcome means that Senate Democrats can breathe a collective sigh of relief after a volatile midterm election campaign that underscored just how tenuous the party’s hold on power was.
However, the midterms aren’t finished yet: The Senate race in Georgia has gone to a Dec. 6 runoff, meaning Democrats will have a chance to expand their majority by an additional seat.
While the party was defending far fewer seats this year than Republicans, it went into the election with only the narrowest of Senate majorities. The GOP needed to net only one seat to recapture control of the upper chamber.
At the same time, the political environment was bruising for Democrats. Towering inflation, concerns about rising crime and fears of a looming economic recession all combined to form a political storm that threatened to sweep Democrats out of both of their congressional majorities.
Democrats also faced a grim historical outlook. With few exceptions, the party in power almost always loses ground in Congress in midterm elections.
The fight for control of the Senate ultimately centered on a handful of battleground states, spanning from Pennsylvania to Arizona. While Democrats found themselves playing defense in places like Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire and Arizona, they also pursued Republican-held seats in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio.
Even as the midterms posed an existential threat to Democrats’ Senate majority, the elections also exposed some Republican weaknesses.
GOP voters in states like Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona nominated a series of untested, controversy-prone candidates — in most cases at the behest of former President Trump — who struggled to keep pace with their Democratic rivals in fundraising and often found themselves fending off questions about their personal histories and qualifications.
Among those candidates were former NFL star Herschel Walker, the Republican Senate nominee in Georgia; venture capitalist Blake Masters, the GOP candidate in Arizona, who lost to Sen. Mark Kelly (D) on Friday night; and celebrity physician Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee in Pennsylvania, who was defeated by John Fetterman on Tuesday.
While Republican leaders in Washington ultimately coalesced behind their roster of Senate nominees, the candidates also fueled some animosity between party officials.
Earlier this year, a spat erupted between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), after McConnell offered a thinly veiled criticism of the quality of the GOP’s Senate candidates.
Nevertheless, Republicans carried out a potent messaging strategy, hitting Democrats relentlessly on everything from the rate of inflation to public safety. That playbook helped GOP candidates in key states close in on their Democratic opponents in the final month of the campaign.
But Democrats were also bolstered by a roster of battle-tested candidates to overcome the unfriendly political terrain. Some vulnerable incumbents, like Kelly and Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), cast themselves as independent-minded public servants who had accomplished big things in their short time in Washington and were prolific fundraisers.
Of course, the country’s next elections in 2024 are also poised to be brutal for Senate Democrats. The party will have to defend nearly two-dozen seats in two years to the GOP’s 10, giving Republicans another shot at winning the majority.