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Republicans close in on retaining senate control with key wins
[WASHINGTON] Republicans are moving closer to keeping their majority in the US Senate as they scored key wins in a handful of tight races.
Marco Rubio of Florida, John McCain of Arizona, Richard Burr of North Carolina all won re-election, and Representative Todd Young defeated Democrats' star recruit, former Senator Evan Bayh.
The victories put them in striking reach of handing Democrats a stunning setback as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump was performing unexpectedly well in several battleground states.
Democrats gained a seat in Illinois as Representative Tammy Duckworth ousted incumbent Mark Kirk, according to media projections.
Ms Duckworth represents one of the five seats Democrats need to gain to wrest control of the Senate from Republicans. If Hillary Clinton is elected president, Democrats would take effective control of the chamber with a 50-50 split, because her running mate, Tim Kaine, would serve as a tie-breaker.
Mr Rubio's decision to run for Senate after an all-hands-on-deck recruitment effort by GOP leaders dramatically boosted their prospects for keeping hold of the chamber. Republican Rob Portman of Ohio also cruised to re-election in a race that was once expected to be close.
Five other battleground states, however, will tell the tale of control, with Republicans defending seats in all but one of them.
The outcome will be critical for implementing or resisting the agendas of a President Hillary Clinton or Trump, with a Supreme Court vacancy, a check on executive appointments and the ability to set the legislative agenda all in the balance.
The presidential race has played havoc with Republican and Democratic candidates for Congress this year. Mr Trump's sky-high disapproval ratings in particular had Senate Republicans working to establish independence by running on state and local issues.
Republican candidates were reeling after the release of a 2005 video that captured Mr Trump making lewd remarks about women, with several taking back their endorsements of Mr Trump and trying to distance themselves.
But the polls quickly swung back in favour of more Republicans amid FBI Director James Comey's Oct 28 disclosure that he revived an investigation of Mrs Clinton's use of a private e-mail server while she was secretary of state. Nine days later, Mr Comey closed the probe again.
Republicans, whose current majority is 54-46, could keep control if they prevail in a challenging game of defense. They hold 10 of the 11 seats that make up the closest contests.
Every seat in the US House is also at stake on Tuesday. The Republicans were on track to keep control of the House, where they currently have their largest majority in more than 80 years. Democrats are expected to pick up somewhere between five and 15 seats, which would narrow the GOP's margin.
At stake is what legislation Congress will consider in 2017 when immigration policy, banking regulation and tax rates are likely to be on the agenda, regardless of whether Mrs Clinton or Mr Trump becomes president.
Control of the Senate also could help shape the future of the Supreme Court for years to come. The late Justice Antonin Scalia's seat remains vacant, and three justices age 78 or older will be on retirement watch.
In the Senate, the prevailing party likely will have a majority of just a seat or two, well short of the 60 votes needed to overcome filibusters that can kill legislation or block a high court nomination. A 50-50 split would hand control to the party that wins the presidency, with the vice president able to cast tie-breaking votes.
In Indiana, Mr Bayh, a former Democratic senator and two-term governor, made a surprise July entry into the race for the seat held by retiring Republican Senator Dan Coats. But Mr Young pulled closer in recent polls, buoyed in part by the popularity in the state of Trump and his running mate, current Indiana Governor Mike Pence.
Senator Rubio In Florida, Rubio was defending his seat against Democratic Representative Patrick Murphy. Mr Rubio also was a late entry, announcing his run in June after a trouncing by Mr Trump in Florida's presidential primary drove the senator out of that campaign. Mr Rubio led in late polling and Mr Murphy was hampered by the Democratic Party's decision to pull television advertising dollars.
Republicans have few opportunities to pick up seats. Only one Democratic-held seat on the ballot isn't considered safe - the one held by retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, a former state attorney general, is running against Republican Representative Joe Heck. Mr Heck's lead in polls has been narrowing.
Democrats are slightly favored to defeat Republican Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
Four other Republican senators are in races so close they are considered toss-ups: Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Roy Blunt of Missouri, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
Several senators cruised to easy re-elections, including Democrats Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Chuck Schumer of New York, and Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina. In Maryland, Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen won a Senate seat.
The outcome in one or more of the races may not be known for days or weeks. The contest to replace Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana has more than a dozen contenders and may wind up in a Dec 10 runoff vote, even though Republicans are favoured to keep the seat.
In 2006, party control of the Senate wasn't certain until three days after the election, as razor-thin outcomes in races in Montana and Virginia weren't called right away.
It became clear Democrats had won when Republican George Allen conceded his Virginia race to Democrat Jim Webb after post-election vote-canvassing in the state.
Democrats and Republicans actually emerged from the 2006 election with 49 seats each. The Senate's two independents, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, caucused with Democrats and gave the party the edge.