Update: When this story was published it appeared that the Republican candidate, Martha McSally, had won the Senate race in Arizona. Once all the votes were counted, the Democratic Party’s Kyrsten Sinema was the victor. Our apologies, and congratulations, to Senator-elect Sinema.
SHERROD BROWN stood before a lectern in downtown Columbus, as gravelly-voiced and rumpled as ever, and celebrated. He had just handily dispatched his opponent, the perpetually befuddled Jim Renacci, to win a third term representing Ohio in the Senate. “You showed the country”, he told the cheering crowd, “that progressives can win, and win decisively in the heartland…We carried a state that Donald Trump won by almost double digits.”
Mr Brown’s victory was one of the few clouds amid generally sunny news for Republicans in the upper chamber. On November 6th Republicans flipped at least three seats, expanding their Senate majority and highlighting Democratic weaknesses in rural America.
In their defence, Democrats faced a difficult map this year. They had to defend 24 seats, including ten in states that Mr Trump won. And their candidate in Texas, Beto O’Rourke, came closer to winning a Senate seat than any Democrat in decades. He waged a tireless, positive campaign that could become a model for Democrats running in Republican states. But he still lost, against a candidate many Texan Republicans regard as weak.
On January 3rd 2019 Senate Democrats will go to work in a chamber controlled, once again, by Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in which they will hold a deficit of at least six seats. That will leave them unable to block Mr Trump’s appointees. The president will also be able to continue, unimpeded, his transformation of the federal judiciary. He has already appointed more federal appellate judges than any other president in his first two years, as well as two Supreme Court judges. He may further transform the bench: two of the court’s liberal justices are in their 80s. Republican gains in the Senate will insulate the party against losses in 2020, a presidential election year in which the map will be favourable to Democrats.
Some of the seats that Democrats lost were held by near-perfect candidates for those states. Heidi Heitkamp was so popular in North Dakota that her opponent, Kevin Cramer, admitted in his final campaign ad, “We all like Heidi.” Claire McCaskill is a moderate pragmatist who won tough statewide races in 2006 and 2012. But during her 12 years in the Senate, Missouri grew steadily more Republican. So did Indiana, where Joe Donnelly, a rare pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat, lost to Mike Braun, a hard-edged Trumpist who stoked fear of illegal immigrants in his campaign ads. The Republican candidate, Martha McSally, won a seat in Arizona that the Democrats thought was there for the taking. And in Florida, Rick Scott looks to have edged out the Democratic incumbent.
It was not all gloom and doom for Democrats. They flipped a seat in Nevada. Pennsylvania, which Mr Trump won, offered perhaps the purest contest of Trumpism versus a standard Democrat: Lou Barletta, an ur-Trump anti-immigration hardliner, faced off against Bob Casey, a competent but unremarkable incumbent Democrat. Mr Casey won easily. And Democrats showed renewed strength across the Midwest. Not only did they hold Ohio, but Minnesota and Wisconsin re-elected their Democratic senators, one of whom, Tammy Baldwin from Wisconsin, is as progressive as Mr Brown.
The difference between these states and Indiana, North Dakota and Missouri, where Republicans did even better than expected, may be the existence of strong traditions of organised labour. Mr Trump did anomalously well, for a Republican candidate, among union households. Strong showings from Senate candidates have left Democrats convinced they can win back some of these Trump voters in 2020.
Rocco DiGennaro, who heads the Labourers International Union Local 125 in Youngstown, Ohio, says that many of his members who voted for Mr Trump also voted for Mr Brown. “Everyone knows Sherrod Brown,” he explains. “Everyone knows he’s a fighter.” But they supported Mr Trump in 2016 because they saw him as a fighter, too—and they could do so again.