WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic incumbents were re-elected Tuesday from New Jersey to Ohio as Republicans fought to retain control of the Senate, hoping that President Donald Trump’s nationalistic appeals to hard-right voters would let them continue their role as protectors of his conservative agenda.
GOP hopes of gaining a seat from New Jersey were dashed when Democrat Sen. Bob Menendez won a third Senate term. Republican challenger Bob Hugin, a wealthy former pharmaceutical executive, repeatedly attacked Menendez over a federal bribery indictment that prosecutors dropped this year after a mistrial, but Menendez hung on in the heavily Democratic state.
Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania also won re-election. They were among four Democratic incumbents facing the voters in Midwestern states that Trump carried two years ago, stunning Democrats. The victories by Brown and Casey underscored that Trump’s 2016 dominance of that swath of the country, once a Democratic stronghold, was not a lock.
Initial vote counts were too tight to call a pivotal race in Indiana, where Republicans hoped to oust moderate Sen. Joe Donnelly and either pad their slender Senate majority or offset possible Democratic gains elsewhere.
Also inconclusive were early votes in Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s battle to keep his seat in West Virginia, a state Trump carried by a mammoth 42 percentage points in 2016. He was among 10 Senate Democrats fighting for survival in states Trump carried, including five by margins of at least 19 percentage points, though most were expected to run strongly.
While Republicans command the Senate only narrowly, 51-49, a crucial political equation was in their favor: Democrats and their two independent allies were defending 26 seats, Republicans just nine.
Democrats’ longshot prospects for capturing a Senate majority were pinned on expectations that their supporters, roused by revulsion toward Trump, would surge to the polls. Fueling their intensity have been Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric and policies, his efforts to dismantle health care protections enacted under President Barack Obama and the #MeToo movement’s fury over sexual harassment.
“Ever since President Trump has been in office, it has just been not the country that I am used to or that I thought I would be in,” said Sarah Roth, 22, a Democratic voter from Minnetonka, Minnesota. “And so this really was my opportunity to help this country in changing who is making the decisions.”
Democrats also had history on their side: 2002 was the only midterm election in the past three decades when the party holding the White House gained Senate seats.
Republicans were hoping those dynamics would be offset by a vibrant U.S. economy and by a president whose insult-laden approach to political discourse was as stirring for conservative voters as it was infuriating to liberals.
AP VoteCast, a national survey of the electorate conducted by The Associated Press, highlighted the effect Trump was having on voters. Nearly 4 in 10 said they were casting ballots to express opposition to him, while just 1 in 4 said their vote was an expression of support for the president.
The poll also showed that health care, a dominant theme of many Democrats’ campaigns, was considered the key issue in Tuesday’s election, followed closely by immigration.
In other early results, Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and Democrats Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York were easily re-elected. Along with Brown, the three are considered potential 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls.
Also victorious was Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, his party’s vanquished 2016 vice presidential candidate. Republicans Roger Wicker of Mississippi and John Barrasso of Wyoming also won new terms.
With Democrats considered a good bet to grab House control from Republicans, keeping the Senate was seen as crucial for the GOP’s goals of tax and spending cuts, trade, immigration restrictions, curbs on Obama’s health care law and judicial nominations.
With so much at stake, Trump campaigned in over a dozen states with Senate elections since Labor Day, visiting some multiple times. He himself has characterized the election as a referendum on his presidency.
Democrats needed to gain two Senate seats to win a majority, assuming all their incumbents were re-elected, an unlikely outcome. But they had a plausible chance of winning GOP-held seats only in Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee and Texas.
In other states Trump carried in 2016, Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota seemed at greatest peril of losing. Other Democrats fighting for political survival included Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and Bill Nelson of Florida. Nelson, 76, faced outgoing GOP Gov. Rick Scott, who poured over $50 million of his own fortune into his campaign, the most in the U.S.
Trump’s racially tinged anti-immigrant appeals could hurt Republican candidates in swing states like Arizona and Nevada where college-educated voters could be decisive, but his rhetoric could help in deeply conservative areas.
“I believe he values immigration, but he wants to make sure we’re safe,” said Tina Newby of Wetland, Michigan, a GOP voter. “I like the fact that he is not a politician, and I forgive some of the socially incorrect or politically incorrect things that he says.”
Amid the recent rash of letter bombs and the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, Trump issued alarming and often unfounded warnings about caravans of migrants crossing Mexico toward the U.S., blaming Democrats, without evidence, for the threat he claimed they pose.
In battlegrounds where Democrats were thought to have chances to gain seats, first-term Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen was in a close contest with Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, the only Republican seeking re-election in a state Democrat Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential race. Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a darling of progressives from coast to coast, raised record contributions but faced long odds of ousting tea party Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas.
Democrats also had opportunities because of the retirements of GOP Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Tennessee’s Bob Corker, both leaving Congress after accusing Trump of dishonesty and questioning his competence.
There was a strong chance Mississippi’s special election to complete the unexpired term of retired GOP Sen. Thad Cochran would go to a late November runoff. Republicans who dominate the state would probably prevail, but waiting for the outcome could extend the uncertainty about the Senate’s party breakdown — and perhaps which side has control.
AP VoteCast is a nationwide survey of more than 120,000 voters and nonvoters conducted for the AP by NORC at the University of Chicago.