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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Democrats hold the Senate, as Cortez Masto ekes out a victory in Nevada

Senator Catherine Cortez Masto at her election night party in Las Vegas. Days later, her victory over Adam Laxalt, a Republican former attorney general of Nevada, was confirmed.

By Jonathan Weisman

Democrats sealed control of the Senate on Saturday as Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada narrowly defeated Adam Laxalt, a Republican former state attorney general, a decisive moment in an extraordinary midterm election in which Democrats defied historical patterns and predictions of major losses.

Control of the House has still not been decided, several days after an Election Day that fell short of predictions that Republicans would sweep to power in Washington in a repudiation of President Joe Biden’s leadership. Although Republicans still have an edge in capturing the House, their majority would certainly be small.

But with Cortez Masto’s victory in Nevada, Democrats have nailed down the 50 seats they need to retain control of the upper chamber, a major feat considering that voters typically punish the president’s party during the midterms.

The Democratic victory will bolster Biden’s political capital as he moves toward a possible bid for a second term. Even if Republicans do take the House, he will be able to stock the judiciary with his nominees and will be insulated from politically freighted GOP legislation. And Democrats will be free to mount their own investigations to counter the threatened onslaught from a Republican-controlled lower chamber.

“I feel good, and I’m looking forward to the next couple of years,” Biden told reporters in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Cortez Masto’s modest lead — half a percentage point — was secure enough for The Associated Press to project a winner Saturday night. Most of the remaining votes left to be counted were from mail ballots, which have tended to break for Cortez Masto by a wide margin.

Speaking in New York, a triumphant Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader, called his party’s victory “a vindication for Democrats, our agenda and for the American people.” He added, “The American people rejected the anti-democratic extremist MAGA Republicans.”

A Dec. 6 runoff in Georgia between Sen. Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, will offer only a slight padding of Democrats’ majority or a consolation prize to Republicans.

The Democratic victory in Nevada, along with Sen. Mark Kelly’s reelection in Arizona, which was called late Friday, affirmed the thin firewall that the party is trying to fortify in the West. Biden won Arizona by a mere 10,457 votes in 2020; Nevada has been more consistently Democratic in presidential years but erratic in midterms.

Cortez Masto, who became the first Latina senator six years ago, had to come from behind to beat Laxalt, who was backed by former President Donald Trump.

Her victory was sealed Saturday night when 22,323 mail-in ballots were recorded from Clark County. The Democrat’s 14,084 votes were enough to vault her into a large enough lead to ensure her victory.

Laxalt indicated on Twitter on Saturday that he might not drag out the race with claims of fraud, despite efforts earlier this year to map out a litigation strategy. Hours before the race was called, he acknowledged that Cortez Masto might “overtake us” and thanked his supporters.

But a close adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, seemed to question the results on Twitter. The adviser, Josh Holmes, called her comeback “statistically unforeseeable” — although he offered no evidence of fraud or error.

Cortez Masto’s success was all the more noteworthy coming a day after the Republican candidate for governor, Sheriff Joseph Lombardo of Clark County, ousted the Democratic incumbent, Gov. Steve Sisolak. Cortez Masto outperformed Sisolak in Nevada’s rural counties and was able to keep voters in her fold who said they mildly disapproved of the job Biden was doing, according to Republican polling.

Nevada held some of the biggest surprises of a surprising midterm. Even Democrats had been worried about a blowout: the loss of a governorship, a senator and three House Democrats. In the end, only the governor lost.

Republicans were dealt another blow Saturday night when Jim Marchant, who helped organize a national slate of Trump-aligned candidates aiming to take over state election systems, lost Nevada’s race for secretary of state to Cisco Aguilar, a Democrat. The result meant that every election denier hoping to run future elections in a major battleground state had been defeated.

And Democrats were racking up victories elsewhere: In Washington, one of the biggest upsets of the midterms was declared when a Democratic political neophyte, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, beat Joe Kent, a hard-right veteran backed by Trump who in a primary had ousted the current Republican representative, Jaime Herrera Beutler, as retribution for her vote to impeach Trump. Kent’s loss was the second time Republicans had ousted a member of their party who backed impeachment, only to lose the seat to Democrats.

A Democratic Senate will be invaluable to Biden, even if Republicans narrowly secure control of the House. In addition to having two more years to confirm judges, Biden will have more control over personnel in his government with the confirmation of nominees under the guidance of Schumer.

By never bringing House bills to a vote, Senate Democrats will be able to insulate Biden from having to veto politically difficult legislation. Senate Democrats will be able to answer political messaging bills passed by the House with political messages of their own, using bipartisan measures like the infrastructure bill and the gun control bill that came out of the current 50-50 Senate in an effort to pressure House Republicans to act.

“Because the American people turned out to elect Democrats in the Senate, there is now a firewall against the threat a nationwide abortion ban, cuts to Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, and the extreme MAGA Republican policies,” Schumer said Saturday night. “Republicans in the House should be on notice.”

In past showdowns, bipartisan solutions secured in the Senate have ultimately been swallowed by the House. That becomes more likely in the case of a divided Congress, with the Senate in Democratic hands.

Senate Democrats will also be a voice for the administration when Congress must pass bills to fund the government and raise the statutory borrowing limit. But Republicans, if they win control of the House, will almost certainly try to extract concessions, under the threat of government shutdowns or even a potentially disastrous debt default.

For much of the midterm campaigns, Republicans and independent analysts saw GOP control of the House as a foregone conclusion, given Biden’s unpopularity and the headwinds that economic uncertainty and inflation represented for Democratic candidates.

But control of the Senate appeared to be a seesaw battle. Those same political headwinds burdened Democratic candidates for the Senate, but weak Republican challengers, many of them endorsed or hand-picked by Trump, gave Democrats a fighting chance in swing states like Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada.

In the heated aftermath of the Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v. Wade, which ended constitutional protections for abortion, Democrats thought they could bolster their 50-vote control by two or three seats. Then the pendulum seemed to swing late in the campaigns, and Republicans convinced themselves that the anger over abortion was waning. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the leader of Senate Republicans’ political arm, said in late October that he saw a path to a 55-seat Republican majority, predicting that even Democratic states like Washington and Colorado were in play.

In the end, the field proved to be much smaller. Democrats were able to capture just one Republican seat, that of the retiring Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, which was won by the state’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman. But, so far, Republicans have defeated no Democratic incumbents in Senate races. And only one Democratic incumbent, Warnock in Georgia, is left to possibly defeat.

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