WASHINGTON – Democrats handily secured a majority in the Senate on Tuesday, snatching Republican-held seats in Massachusetts and Indiana and turning back fierce, expensive challenges in Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin and Connecticut to maintain the control they've held since 2007.
With a third of the Senate up for election, Republicans were undone by candidate stumbles. GOP hopefuls in Missouri and Indiana uttered clumsy statements about rape and abortion that severely damaged their chances and the party's hopes of taking over. The losses of Senate seats in Massachusetts and Indiana, combined with independent Angus King's victory in the Republican-held Maine seat, put the GOP too far down in their already uphill climb.
Democrats held open seats in Virginia, Wisconsin and New Mexico, and were leading in North Dakota shortly after midnight. The only pickup for the Republicans was Nebraska, where Deb Fischer denied former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey's bid to return to the Capitol.
Democrats, once on the wrong side of the political math with 23 seats at risk compared with only 10 for the GOP, suddenly looked like they could increase their numbers. They entered the night with a 53-47 edge, including two independents who caucus with them. After midnight, Democrats controlled 52 seats to the GOP's 44 with three races still outstanding and one newly elected independent, Angus King of Maine, saying he hasn't decided which party he will align with.
In charge again, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Republicans brought defeat on themselves with their preoccupation with denying President Barack Obama a second term.
"Things like this are what happens when your No. 1 goal is to defeat the president and not work to get legislation passed," Reid said. "The strategy of obstruction, gridlock and delay was soundly rejected by the American people. Now they are looking to us for solutions," he said in a separate statement.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the voters have not endorsed the "failures or excesses of the president's first term," but rather have given him more time to finish the job.
"To the extent he wants to move to the political center, which is where the work gets done in a divided government, we'll be there to meet him half way," McConnell said.
The results were a bitter loss for the GOP and are certain to prompt questions about the promise and peril of the tea party movement that just two years ago delivered a takeover of the House to the GOP. In 2010, three tea party Senate candidates in Nevada, Delaware and Colorado cost Republicans seats they were favored to win. On Tuesday, a tea party-backed candidate in Indiana denied the GOP a seat that the party had been favored to win, while Fischer and tea party-backed Ted Cruz of Texas prevailed in their races.
In a sober statement, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the GOP has work to do.
"We have a period of reflection and recalibration ahead for the Republican Party. While some will want to blame one wing of the party over the other, the reality is candidates from all corners of our GOP lost tonight," Cornyn said, though he added that the party's "conservative vision is the right one to secure a stronger America for future generations."
Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly edged out tea party-backed Indiana state treasurer Richard Mourdock in a race rocked by the Republican candidate's awkward remark that pregnancy resulting from rape is "something God intended."
Mourdock also upset some Indiana voters for his decision to sue to stop the federal auto bailout of Chrysler, which means jobs building transmissions to thousands in Kokomo. And he alienated some in his own party with his divisive win over six-term Sen. Richard Lugar in the May GOP primary. Lugar refused to campaign for him.
In Massachusetts, Democrat Elizabeth Warren knocked out Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who had stunned the political world in January 2010 when he won the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's seat. The strong Democratic tilt in the state and President Barack Obama's easy win over former Gov. Mitt Romney helped the consumer advocate in her bid.
The Massachusetts race was one of the most expensive in the country — $68 million — even though both candidates agreed to bar outside spending.
In Missouri, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill was considered the most vulnerable incumbent, but Republican Rep. Todd Akin severely damaged his candidacy in August when he said women's bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy in instances of "legitimate rape." GOP leaders, including Romney, called on him to abandon the race. Akin stayed in.
The results ensure plenty of new faces in the Senate, many of them familiar from the House. Republican Rep. Jeff Flake won in Arizona and will join Democratic Reps. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico. In Wisconsin, Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin defeated former four-term Gov. Tommy Thompson and will be the first openly gay senator. .
The caustic campaign for control of the Senate in a divided Congress was marked by endless negative ads and more than $1 billion in spending by outside groups on races from Virginia and Florida to Montana and New Mexico. The outcome in Ohio and Virginia was closely linked to the presidential race.
In Maine, independent Angus King prevailed over Republican Charlie Summers and Democrat Cynthia Dill in the race to replace Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, who blamed partisan gridlock in Washington for her unexpected decision to retire after 18 years in the Senate.
King has resolutely refused to say which party he'd side with if elected. But members of both parties have indicated that they expect the former Democratic governor and Obama supporter to align with Democrats. Reid reached out to him Tuesday night, according to a Senate aide.
In Ohio, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown survived an onslaught of outside spending, some $30 million, to defeat state treasurer Josh Mandel. In Pennsylvania, Democratic Sen. Bob Casey survived a late scare from businessman Tom Smith, who invested more than $17 million of his own money in the race.
Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy won the Connecticut Senate seat held by Sen. Joe Lieberman, the independent who was the Democratic Party's vice presidential nominee in 2000. Murphy's win marked the second straight defeat for former wrestling executive Linda McMahon, who spent $50 million of her own wealth in a failed effort against Sen. Richard Blumenthal in 2010 and more than $42 million this election cycle.
In Texas, Republican Cruz won the seat held by retiring GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Cruz will become the third Hispanic in the Senate, joining Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
In Florida, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson triumphed in his bid for a third term, holding off a challenge from Republican Rep. Connie Mack. Republican groups had spent heavily against Nelson early in the race, but the moderate Democrat was a prolific fundraiser with wide appeal among Democrats and some Republicans in the Panhandle.
Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders won a second term in Vermont. Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse in Rhode Island, Ben Cardin in Maryland and Tom Carper in Delaware were all re-elected. Also cruising to another term were Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, Kirsten Gillibrand in New York, Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota, Dianne Feinstein in California, Maria Cantwell in Washington state and Menendez in New Jersey.
In West Virginia, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin won a full term even though his state went heavily for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Tennesseans gave Republican Sen. Bob Corker a second term. Wyoming voters did the same for GOP Sen. John Barrasso, and Republican Roger Wicker captured another term in Mississippi. In Utah, Sen. Orrin Hatch won a seventh term and will be the most senior GOP senator.
Democrats and Republicans in a dozen states faced an onslaught of outside money that financed endless negative commercials and ugly mailings that left voters exasperated. The record independent spending — $50 million in Virginia and $40 million in Wisconsin in addition to $33 million in Ohio — reflected the high-stakes fight for the Senate.