The topsy-turvy battle for the Senate — marked by early GOP exuberance about a Republican takeover and later by resignation that the party would come up short yet again — drew to a close as voters went to the polls to decide cliffhanger elections in states from Massachusetts to Montana.
Democrats were widely expected to keep their narrow Senate majority, or perhaps even pick up a seat.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) notched an easy win over Rep. Connie Mack, who was massively outgunned on the airwaves and hobbled by persistent questions about his character.
Independent Angus King captured the open seat in Maine. While the popular former governor has declined to state which party he would caucus with, Democrats are confident he will ultimately align with them.
Meanwhile, in Indiana, Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly had opened up an early single-digit lead over beleaguered Republican Richard Mourdock, who was drastically underperforming Mitt Romney.
Going into the night, even Republican operatives openly acknowledged before the polls closed that the GOP would fall
short of the three or four pickups needed to flip control, leaving the party to lick its wounds for the second consecutive cycle.
“The most likely outcome at this point seems to be Republicans picking up a single net seat, losing a single net seat, or holding steady by winning two to replace Scott Brown and Olympia Snowe,” wrote Republican pollster Chris Wilson in his pre-election memo.
That means the 2013 Senate is likely to look much like the current one, with Democrats holding a 53-47 edge.
The four races that confounded consultants through Election Day were in Montana, Wisconsin, Indiana and Nevada.
Final polling in Montana, where a jaw-dropping $40 million was spent, showed GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg
and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester running neck and neck.
Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament tried to give his longtime friend a last-minute lift Monday night on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” holding up a “Vote Tester” sign
. The Tester campaign also howled about last minute robocalls, which are illegal in the Treasure State.
“It is very close,” said a labor source on the ground in the state.
“I have no idea what will happen in Montana,” added a GOP operative.
The Wisconsin contest between former Gov. Tommy Thompson and Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin is also anticipated to come down to just a few percentage points.
Closing public polling gave Baldwin a 3-point edge, within the margin of error. But the competition for the
state’s 10 electoral votes meant the winner could be determined by presidential headwinds.
One Republican told POLITICO that Thompson trailed in some final GOP internal polling and blamed the top of the ticket.
“What usually happens in Wisconsin, Republicans underperform compared to public polling results, and Democrats overperform,” said a Republican consultant tracking the race. “I just think Dems have some inherent advantages in Wisconsin.”
In Indiana, Donnelly was on track to pull the upset of the night by upending Mourdock, who damaged himself in the closing weeks with his controversial comment during a debate about rape and abortion.
But Mourdock’s team
remained confident the state treasurer would eke out a win Tuesday night, thanks to a superior ground game and Romney’s expected wide margin of victory in the Hoosier State.
“I don’t need to look at exit polls to know that the results tonight are going to be incredibly close. Like, Florida in 2000 close,” warned Donnelly campaign manager Paul Tencher in an email Tuesday.
One Mourdock operative predicted that Donnelly would hit “the liberal glass ceiling of 46 percent” and told POLITICO that GOP standard-bearer Mitt Romney needs to net 53 percent of the vote in order to pull Mourdock through.
A GOP loss of the seat held by Sen. Dick Lugar for 36 years would be a devastating blow and ricochet throughout the country.
Nevada is primed to be one of the last competitive contests called for the night. Republican Sen. Dean Heller headed into Election Day with a very slim lead on Rep. Shelley Berkley, who has
been hobbled by a House Ethics Committee investigation into whether she improperly steered legislation that benefited her husband.
The rest of the 33-seat map looks a bit clearer.
Republicans are feeling better about Rep. Rick Berg’s prospects of picking up the open seat in North Dakota in his race against Democrat Heidi Heitkamp.
A top North Dakota GOP official told POLITICO late Tuesday afternoon that Republicans were becoming confident enough in a Berg victory that they were mulling lending a hand to Rehberg in neighboring Montana.
“There’s an hour time difference, so our volunteers may potentially begin calling into Montana. We’re absolutely considering it,” the official said.
The strong partisan dynamic is the same for Democrat Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, which is poised to fall emphatically in President Barack Obama’s column.
Republican Sen. Scott Brown needs to capture
60 percent of independents and close to 20 percent of Democrats to defeat Warren in the most expensive political race in Massachusetts history. Brown and Warren spent close to $70 million combined even while sticking to a pledge to keep big-spending outside groups from advertising on their behalf.
In another closely watched matchup in Virginia, Democrat Tim Kaine held a single-digit lead over Republican George Allen in the final days of the campaign.
Allen was attempting to reclaim the seat he lost in 2006 after he used a racial slur to disparage a Democratic tracker. Kaine, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, framed his campaign around post-partisanship and independence, in the mold of Democratic Sen. Mark Warner.
Races in Ohio and Missouri — once viewed as ripe potential opportunities for Republicans — are now expected to end up in the Democratic column.
Sen. Sherrod Brown has maintained a
consistent polling lead, benefiting from his youthful opponent’s high unfavorable ratings. First-term Sen. Claire McCaskill — once dubbed the most vulnerable incumbent of the cycle — was given new life after GOP Rep. Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” remark.
While there were signs both Akin and Ohio Republican candidate Josh Mandel made their races closer in the waning days, a win by either would be seen as a major upset.
Partisans are keeping their fingers crossed for a similar surprise in Arizona and New Mexico.
But GOP Rep. Jeff Flake is expected to hold on in his nasty bout with Democrat Richard Carmona, and Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich should prevail over former Republican Rep. Heather Wilson.