Tammy Duckworth, center, candidate for U.S. senator for Illinois, gets a hug from supporter Demetria Puckett, 62, during lunch with Secretary of State Jesse White, left, and Sen. Richard J. Durbin on Tuesday in Chicago. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Republicans were poised to keep control of the House on Tuesday and well positioned to hang on to the Senate as the fight narrowed to toss-up contests in fewer than half a dozen states.
After losing control two years ago, Democrats needed a net gain of five seats to take back the Senate if Donald Trump won the White House and four if Democrat Hillary Clinton prevailed and her running mate, Tim Kaine, becomes the tie-breaking vote.
Although the House majority was never seriously in doubt, the outcome in the Senate was less certain, hinging on close contests in Nevada, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Missouri and Pennsylvania.
But as the election returns rolled in, Democrats faced an increasingly narrow pathway to a majority.
Republicans, who currently hold 54 of 100 seats, prevailed in two states once eyed by Democrats as potentially solid takeover prospects and hung on in one of the hardest-fought contests.
In Florida, Marco Rubio — a once and likely future presidential candidate — coasted to a second term after he reversed himself and decided to seek another term. In Ohio, Rob Portman also won easy reelection.
In Indiana, former Sen. Evan Bayh disappointed Democrats by failing in his comeback attempt, losing the state’s open-seat contest to Rep. Todd Young. In North Carolina, Democrats faced another setback when incumbent Republican Richard Burr beat back a strong challenge to win reelection despite his lackluster campaign.
As expected, Democrats picked up a seat in Illinois, where Rep. Tammy Duckworth defeated Republican Mark Kirk, long seen as one of the most vulnerable GOP incumbents in the country.
In Arizona, Sen. John McCain was battling for a sixth term amid strong Latino turnout drawn by deep antipathy toward the party’s Republican nominee, Donald Trump.
Louisiana’s open Senate seat is likely to remain Republican, but it may require a December runoff if no candidate tops 50%. The field included former Ku Klux Klan leaders David Duke, but he was considered more a curiosity than a contender.
Apart from the presidential contest, nothing on Tuesday would do as much to shape the political outlook for the next two years as the fight for control of the Senate.
If elected, Democrat Hillary Clinton could count on a smoother path with her party in control, especially because Republicans seemed virtually certain to hang on to their majority in the House.
The same held true for Trump, who — despite his many differences with party leaders — would face a much more difficult time with a Senate in the hands of opposition Democrats.
Whatever the outcome, Tuesday’s results were not expected to ease the partisan infighting or persistent gridlock that has defined Congress in recent years, to the great frustration of many voters.
“I’m hard-pressed to think that Congress will be able to muster much more agreement with themselves or the incoming president,” said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University and expert on Congress.
Republicans have signaled they see little to gain by working with Clinton, should she win election, if that entails compromises that would rile the party’s conservative base. At the same time, their differences with Trump — who broke with party orthodoxy on several issues, including trade and foreign policy — could leave congressional Republicans sharply divided among themselves..
“Most of the ingredients that have created this low-functioning Congress are still in place,” Binder said.
Part of the dysfunction in Congress could be eased if the new president played a more actively bipartisan role, reaching across the aisle much the way former President Bill Clinton did when he faced a Republican-held Congress, some analysts said.
Politically, however, there may be little incentive for the new president to court votes across the aisle after such a deeply polarizing election.
Voters seemed equally skeptical of change.
“I thought Congress would get better when Jesse Helms retired,” said Democrat Mike Pedneau, a retired mental health worker in Raleigh, N.C., referring to his state’s arch-conservative senator, who died in 2008.
“It’s gotten more brittle,” Pedneau said. “I’d almost rather have the other side win it if meant an end to gridlock.”
Republicans began the election cycle with a built-in disadvantage.
The GOP was forced to defend 24 seats versus 10 for the Democrats, and the party’s difficulties were compounded when voters picked Trump as their nominee.
His many controversial and insulting statements forced Republican candidates to either defend or condemn their presidential standard-bearer, antagonizing voters whichever they chose. Some repudiated Trump. Others contorted themselves by saying they would vote for the nominee but not endorse his candidacy.
More significant, Trump failed to invest in the kind of political infrastructure — such as voter identification and turnout operations — that are typically led by a party’s presidential candidate.