While Georgia’s race will not be settled until a December runoff, Democrats are cautiously optimistic they can clinch the majority sooner as more mail ballots are counted in Nevada’s tight contest.
Democratic control of the Senate would provide Biden with some leverage for his agenda on Capitol Hill, regardless of the outcome in the House, which also remained unsettled late Friday. Republican control of the Senate would further complicate Biden’s agenda for the next two years, positioning the GOP to potentially slow or block confirmation of Biden’s cabinet officials and judges.
Republicans entered the midterm elections needing to gain just one seat to seize control of the upper chamber of Congress, which is evenly divided this year. Their path to victory narrowed on election night as Democrats flipped a crucial Senate seat in Pennsylvania, with Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) beating celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, another first-time Republican candidate boosted by former president Donald Trump in the primaries.
The Arizona race was one of the most hotly contested races of the year. Kelly, a former astronaut, beat Masters, a venture capitalist, after an expensive race in which the Democrat pitched himself as a moderate who would work across the aisle. Some Republicans grew gloomy about their chances in the purple state this fall as Democrats outspent them and maintained a significant lead with independents. But polling showed the race tightening to a toss-up in the final stretch.
Kelly led by nearly six percent with more than 80 percent of ballots counted late Friday.
Arizona once appeared ripe for a GOP pickup, with especially high inflation and a backlash in the state to the Biden administration’s border policies. Masters sought to cast Kelly as a rubber stamp for Biden. But like so many other races this year, Democrats prevailed despite a daunting political environment, portraying their opponent as extreme and tapping into anger over strict new abortion bans that followed the end of Roe v. Wade.
Masters won the nomination with the endorsement of Trump and $15 million in backing from the tech billionaire Peter Thiel, a friend and mentor. He echoed the former president’s false claims about the 2020 election in a campaign ad, saying Trump won. A first-time candidate, Masters quickly stoked some anxiety in the GOP that their candidates in critical races were underperforming.
The Senate Leadership Fund, a group aligned with Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), began pulling out of the race weeks after the primary — though other GOP groups ultimately helped Masters compete on the airwaves with Kelly, one of the Senate’s best fundraisers.
Masters was critical of McConnell during the primary and renewed that criticism this week, calling McConnell and the Republican establishment “incompetent” on Fox News.
“Had he chosen to spend money in Arizona, this race would be over,” Masters said. “We’d be celebrating a Senate majority right now.”
Masters handed Democrats an opening during a summer debate when he mused about privatizing Social Security. Democrats also spent heavily to highlight his evolving comments on abortion, as he backed off calls for a sweeping “federal personhood law” in the general election and endorsed a proposed national ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Kelly’s campaign had already produced and tested negative ads against Masters before the Aug. 3 primary, aides for Kelly said, and found the strongest ads used Masters’s own language, in particular on abortion and Social Security. In August, when Masters had limited resources and Republican groups had few TV reservations supporting him, Kelly’s campaign used that vacuum to dramatically increase its TV budget.
Internally, this strategy came to be known as the “surge” — a bet that expending resources early would be worth it because it would help define Masters for general-election voters.
In Kelly campaign polls conducted between late July and early September, unfavorable ratings for Masters jumped from 35 percent to 48 percent, said the aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private strategy decisions. Masters himself identified the Democratic strategy, saying in an Aug. 19 radio interview: “They’re trying to nuke me, you know, they’re trying to kill the baby in the crib here.”
Meanwhile, Kelly ads aimed to bolster his brand as an independent-minded Democrat and sought to create distance with Biden on the issue of the border. His first ad addressed the economic hardship created by inflation by telling the story of his upbringing as the son of two police officers.
“From day one, this campaign has been about the many Arizonans — Democrats, Independents, and Republicans — who believe in working together to tackle the significant challenges we face,” Kelly said in a statement Friday after the race was called.
Masters’s campaign did not comment Friday night when asked if he would concede.
A fundraising appeal from Masters’s campaign on Thursday did not allege impropriety but argued that “some of the issues we’ve see occur during this election are troubling.” It added, “We’re expecting a contested road forward and legal battles to come.”
In an appearance Friday night on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s show, Masters went further, alleging without providing evidence that Maricopa County, home to more than half of Arizona’s voters, had “mixed up” ballots on two occasions. A campaign spokesman did not respond to a request for the evidence underlying those claims, and a county spokesman also did not immediately respond.
In Georgia, Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) ran just slightly ahead of Republican nominee Herschel Walker, a former football player. But neither candidate met the 50 percent threshold required to avert a runoff.
Also in Arizona, Democrat Adrian Fontes was projected to win the race for secretary of state, defeating Republican Mark Finchem, a far-right state lawmaker who sought oversight of Arizona’s elections while groundlessly pushing to decertify the results from 2020.
Finchem was one of several GOP nominees for secretary of state who campaigned on Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. If elected, he would have served as the top elections official for a battleground state in 2024. The secretary of state certifies the statewide results.
“We know that Republicans and independents are interested in the truth,” Fontes said in an interview moments after his race was called. “We know that they are not interested in the lies. What it says is that democracy, at least for the time being, will survive in this republic.”
In Nevada, where votes were still being counted, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) narrowly trailed GOP candidate Adam Laxalt, a former state attorney general, on Friday. But Democrats see encouraging signs that ballots mailed from urban areas will catch her up.
While Republicans long expected to retake the House, a goal they have yet to clinch, they faced a more uncertain fight over the Senate. Republicans held on to competitive seats in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin in Tuesday’s elections, while Democratic incumbents prevailed in Colorado, New Hampshire and Washington state.
The GOP needs to net only five seats for a majority in the House and have expressed confidence they will prevail there. But their gains so far have fallen short of a red wave, paving the way for a narrower majority in which leadership will need more unified support from an often-fractious caucus to enact their agenda.
Republican Joe Lombardo was also projected to unseat Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak in Nevada on Friday, handing the GOP their first pickup in a governor’s race this election cycle.
In a statement released before the race was called Friday night, Sisolak said it “appears we will fall a percentage point or so short of winning” and that he believes in “our election system, in democracy and honoring the will of Nevada voters.” He noted the struggles of the past four years — including the pandemic and inflation — and said he reached out to Lombardo to wish him success.
During the campaign, Lombardo, the sheriff of Clark County — which includes Las Vegas — criticized Sisolak’s handling of crime, education and the coronavirus pandemic. He said he would be a “pro-life governor” but sought to play down the issue and said he would follow “the vote of the people,” as Sisolak accused him of changing positions out of political convenience.
“Our victory is a victory for all Nevadans who want our state to get back on track,” Lombardo said in a statement Friday night. “It’s a victory for small business owners, for parents, for students, and for law enforcement.”
Lombardo’s victory marks the GOP’s first gubernatorial pickup in a year when many Democratic incumbents defied GOP hopes of a red wave, prevailing in tight races in Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas and Oregon, where an independent candidate split the Democratic vote.
Stanley-Becker reported from Arizona. Yvonne Wingett Sanchez in Arizona contributed to this report.