WASHINGTON — Democrats 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.
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.
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.
Voters a continent apart made history Tuesday on two divisive social issues, with Maine and Maryland becoming the first states to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote while Washington state and Colorado legalized recreational use of marijuana.
The outcomes in Maine and Maryland broke a 32-state streak, dating back to 1998, in which gay marriage had been rebuffed by every state that held a vote on it. They will become the seventh and eighth states to allow same-sex couples to marry.
“For the first time, voters in Maine and Maryland voted to allow loving couples to make lifelong commitments through marriage — forever taking away the right-wing talking point that marriage equality couldn’t win on the ballot,” said Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights group.
Washington state also was voting on a measure to legalize same-sex marriage, though results were not expected until Wednesday at the soonest. Minnesota voters were divided almost 50/50 on a conservative-backed amendment that would place a ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution.
The outcomes in the four states could possibly influence the U.S. Supreme Court, which will soon be considering whether to take up cases challenging the law that denies federal recognition to same-sex marriages.
The marijuana measures in Colorado and Washington set up a showdown with the federal government, which outlaws the drug.
Colorado’s Amendment 64 will allow adults over 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, though using the drug publicly would still be banned. The amendment would also allow people to grow up to six marijuana plants in a private, secure area.
Washington’s measure establishes a system of state-licensed marijuana growers, processors and retail stores, where adults can buy up to an ounce. It also establishes a standard blood test limit for driving under the influence.
The Washington measure was notable for its sponsors and supporters, who ranged from public health experts and wealthy high-tech executives to two of the Justice Department’s top former officials in Seattle, U.S. Attorneys John McKay and Kate Pflaumer.
“Marijuana policy reform remains an issue where the people lead and the politicians follow,” said Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, which opposes the co-called “war on drugs.” ”But Washington State shows that many politicians are beginning to catch up.”
Estimates have showed pot taxes could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but the sales won’t start until state officials make rules to govern the legal weed industry.
In Massachusetts, voters approved a measure to allow marijuana use for medical reasons, joining 17 other states. Arkansas voters were deciding on a similar measure that would make it the first Southern state in that group; nearly complete returns were too close to call.
Maine’s referendum on same-sex marriage marked the first time that gay-rights supporters put the issue to a popular vote. They collected enough signatures over the summer to schedule the vote, hoping to reverse the outcome of a 2009 referendum that quashed a gay-marriage law enacted by the Legislature.
In both Maryland and Washington, gay-marriage laws were approved by lawmakers and signed by the governors earlier this year, but opponents gathered enough signatures to challenge the laws.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who campaigned vigorously for approval of the marriage measure, spoke to a jubilant crowd in Baltimore, which celebrated with hugs, dancing and popping of balloons.
“Every child’s home deserves to be protected under the law,” O’Malley said.
The president of the most active advocacy group opposing same-sex marriage, Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, insisted the Maryland and Maine results did not mark a watershed moment.
“At the end of the day, we’re still at 32 victories and they’ve got two,” he said. “Just because two extreme blue states vote for gay marriage doesn’t mean the Supreme Court will create a constitutional right for it out of thin air.”
In Minnesota, the question on the ballot was whether the state would join 30 others in placing a ban on gay marriage in its constitution, and the contest was extremely close with most votes counted. Even if the ban was defeated, same-sex marriage would remain illegal in Minnesota under statute.
Heading into the election, gay marriage was legal in six states and the District of Columbia — in each case the result of legislation or court orders, not by a vote of the people.
In all, there were 176 measures on the ballots Tuesday in 38 states, according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.
Other notable ballot measures:
— Maryland voters approved a measure allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition, provided they attended a state high school for three years and can show they filed state income tax returns during that time. About a dozen other states have similar laws, but Maryland’s is the first to be approved by voters.
— In Oklahoma, voters approved a Republican-backed measure that wipes out all affirmative action programs in state government hiring, education and contracting practices. Similar steps have been taken previously in Arizona, California, Michigan, Nebraska and Washington.
— In Michigan, labor unions suffered a big loss. Voters rejected a first-of-its-kind ballot initiative that would have put collective bargaining rights in the state constitution.
— Florida voters rejected a proposal that would have banned government mandates for obtaining insurance such as required by President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. Floridians also rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have limited revenue growth
— California voters approved a measure modifying the nation’s harshest three strikes law to allow for shorter sentences for some offenders. Under Proposition 36, an offender’s third felony conviction now must be a serious or violent crime to mandate an automatic sentence of 25 years to life in prison. Previously, any felony conviction — even for a relatively minor offense — triggered the automatic sentence for an offender with two previous felony convictions for serious or violent crimes.
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