Trump, too, played sharply different roles in the most competitive House and Senate contests. Many House contenders in suburban districts that have turned against Trump wanted nothing to do with the president and touted their willingness to oppose him. But GOP Senate candidates like Hawley in Missouri, Cramer in North Dakota, Braun in Indiana, and Morrisey in West Virginia welcomed him to enormous rallies in the hope that he could drive his loyal supporters to the polls.
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And as his party’s fortunes sagged in one chamber and improved in the other, Trump tried to take credit for the GOP’s Senate campaigns while dismissing potential losses in the House as par for the course for a first-term president. “I think we’re going to do well in the House,” he told reporters on Sunday. “But as you know, my primary focus has been on the Senate, and I think we’re doing really well in the Senate.”
On Tuesday night, the president ignored the GOP’s defeat in the House entirely. “Tremendous success tonight,” he tweeted. “Thank you to all!”
Despite the favorable political climate, the path for Democrats to a Senate majority this year was daunting from the beginning. Just one-third of the chamber’s 100 seats open up every two years, and in 2018 Democrats were defending 26 seats while Republicans had to protect only nine. And many of those Democratic incumbents were fighting for reelection in red states that Trump had carried by a wide margin two years ago. In North Dakota, for example, Heitkamp won her first election in 2012 by fewer than 3,000 votes. Two years ago, Trump won the state by a whopping 35 percentage points.
Yet even the prospective loss of a few seats did not match the nightmare scenario Senate Democrats were contemplating at the beginning of Trump’s term, when it seemed possible that a strong year could give Republicans close to a filibuster-proof 60 seats. Several Democrats representing states that Trump won in the Rust Belt and the upper Midwest strengthened their positions long before Election Day. They included Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania—all of whom prevailed on Tuesday.
In contrast to the Democrats, just a single Senate Republican, Heller of Nevada, was up for reelection in a state Clinton carried in 2016. But the race for control of the chamber became much closer with the surprise retirements of Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Corker of Tennessee, two Republicans who had bickered with Trump and grown weary of his bombastic brand of politics. In Arizona, Sinema had been running about even with McSally, while Bredesen had faced longer odds against Blackburn.
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Still, no Democratic candidate in 2018 captured the imagination—and adoration—of the party’s liberal base more than O’Rourke, the 46-year-old congressman from El Paso who challenged Cruz in Texas. O’Rourke reached voters in every corner of the state by broadcasting his long weekend drives on Facebook Live, and by Election Day he had raised more than $70 million—easily the most for any candidate in the country who was not contributing substantial sums of his own money to his campaign. The energy behind his campaign made the Senate race the closest Texas has seen in years and undoubtedly helped Democrats down the ballot. But it was not enough to overtake Cruz.
So it was, too, for Democrats more broadly. The party swept in to the House majority on a wave of repudiation of Trump by voters in suburban districts. But Democrats could not puncture the president’s equally energized base in rural America, and by the end of the night, they had slipped further behind Republicans in the Senate than when they had started.