Democrats hold narrow majority in Senate, ensures divided Congress with Republican House

Ron Depasquale, The Associated Press
November 7, 2012

NEW YORK, N.Y. - A newly re-elected President Barack Obama will once again deal with a divided Congress as Democrats retained control of the U.S. Senate while Republicans kept control of the House of Representatives.

Democrats, who had more seats to defend, were once seen as vulnerable in the Senate, where 33 of 100 seats were on the ballot. But two Republican candidates in Missouri and Indiana who had made explosive comments about rape and abortion were both defeated and an incumbent Republican in liberal Massachusetts was defeated. Republicans also lost a seat in Maine, where an independent who is expected to caucus with the Democrats won.

Democrats retained their narrow control of the Senate as Republicans failed to defend three seats in Tuesday's elections, while picking up one Democratic-held seat in Nebraska. Republicans were well on the way to retaining control of the House of Representatives, ensuring that Congress will remain divided at the start of Obama's second term in office.

All 435 House seats were on the ballot. Republicans were expected to keep their solid margin. That meant Obama would have difficulty passing any ambitious pieces of legislation.

Control of the Senate does give Democrats a firewall against Republican attempts to overturn Obama's signature legislative achievement, his health care reform law, before it is fully implemented in 2014. Republicans had promised to repeal the law.

At stake Tuesday were 33 of the 100 Senate seats, but only about a dozen Senate races were seen as competitive, and almost all of those that have been called — in Wisconsin, Virginia, Connecticut, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida — went the Democrats' way. That put them in a solid position to retain or even increase their 53-47 advantage in the Senate — a stark turn of events in a year that began with Republicans expected to win the Senate.

Democrats were in a precarious position, defending 23 seats and losing several retiring veterans in Republican-leaning states, all while voter discontent lingered over the sluggish economy and Obama's health care law. But the Democrats fielded some strong candidates, and Republican prospects were undermined by some candidates who proved to be too conservative and by the surprise retirement of Sen. Olympia Snowe in Maine.

Snowe, a moderate, voiced her frustration with the gridlocked Congress when she announced her retirement earlier this year. Independent Angus King, a former governor, won a three-way race to replace her.

King has vowed to be a bridge between the parties and has not said whether he would caucus with Democrats or Republicans. However, he was expected to side with the Democrats after Republican groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking him.

In Indiana, moderate veteran senator Dick Lugar had been expected to easily win re-election, but he lost a Republican primary to state treasurer Richard Mourdock, who was backed by the anti-tax, limited government tea party movement. Mourdock came under withering criticism after saying in a debate that when pregnancy results from rape, it is "something God intended." That opened the way for moderate Democratic congressman Joe Donnelly's victory in a state carried by Romney.

In Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill had been considered the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent, but she defeated another tea party-backed candidate, congressman Todd Akin, who won the Republican primary. Akin was disowned by Republican leaders, including Romney, after he remarked in August that women's bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy in cases of what he called "legitimate rape."

Two Democrats senators who rode a Democratic wave to the Senate in 2006 were elected to second terms: Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Bob Casey in Pennsylvania. In Virginia, Tim Kaine, a former governor and Democratic national party chairman, defeated former Republican senator and governor George Allen in a close race.

In the tight race in Wisconsin, Democratic congresswoman Tammy Baldwin prevailed and will become the first openly gay U.S. senator.

In Connecticut, Democratic congressman Chris Murphy won the seat being vacated by retiring independent Joe Lieberman. Republicans had once hoped that the race would be won by Linda McMahon, the former head of World Wrestling Entertainment who spent more than $42 million of her own fortune in the race.

Democrats had been expected to narrowly retain control of the Senate but would remain nowhere near the 60-vote supermajority needed to easily pass legislation under Senate rules. Republicans managed to win a Democratic-held seat in Nebraska and still hoped to gain others Montana and North Dakota.

Congress consistently rates low in public opinion surveys, but incumbents still tend to get re-elected. They benefit from a system that gives them huge financial advantages in their re-election bids, and enjoy support from voters who tend to favour their own lawmakers even if they dislike Congress overall. Many incumbents in the House were also helped by the once-a-decade redrawing of district boundaries, which has just been completed.

After all of the Senate races are decided, retiring moderates from both parties in Maine, Connecticut, Nebraska, North Dakota, Virginia and Indiana will be replaced, while a moderate in Massachusetts lost and another in Montana could lose.

In the Northeast, Republicans could be left with only a few Senate seats. Along with Maine, Massachusetts was vulnerable. Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who managed to win the seat once held by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, was defeated by Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a favourite among liberals for her work as a consumer advocate.

Some favourites of the anti-tax, limited government tea party movement did well. Republican Ted Cruz won the Senate race in Texas, while Deb Fischer won in Nebraska.

The closest Senate races could be in the conservative western states of Montana and North Dakota. Republicans hope congressman Denny Rehberg will defeat Sen. Jon Tester, who won a close race during the Democratic wave election of 2006. In North Dakota, Republican congressman Rick Berg was the slight favourite to defeat former state attorney general Heidi Heitkamp for the seat held by retiring Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad.

In Nevada, Democrats had hoped to capture the seat held by John Ensign, who was caught up in a sex scandal. But his resignation led to the appointment of Republican congressman Dean Heller, who was narrowly favoured to win. Heller faced a tough challenge from Democratic congresswoman Shelley Berkley.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican House Speaker John Boehner were likely to remain leaders of their chambers.

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Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Alan Fram, Andrew Miga and Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report from Washington.