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GOP on track to keep Senate as Democrats score early House wins
[CHICAGO] Republicans are virtually assured of keeping control of the Senate after GOP candidates unseated an incumbent Democrat in Indiana and won an open seat in Tennessee.
In House races, Democrats scored some early victories Tuesday in their quest to wrest control of the chamber, including in Virginia and Florida. Republicans did hold on in some key races where they faced strong challengers, as initial returns were tallied in the first midterm election of Donald Trump's presidency.
Republicans entered Tuesday with strong prospects of keeping their Senate majority, but the victory by GOP challenger Mike Braun over senator Joe Donnelly in Indiana and Republican Marsha Blackburn's win in Tennessee made it much more difficult for Democrats to make gains.
Democrats would have to win every remaining competitive Senate race to defy what were already long-shot odds against winning a majority in the chamber.
Democrats Joe Manchin in West Virginia and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin won their Senate re-election bids. In Florida's Senate race, Democrat Bill Nelson was in a tight contest with Republican Rick Scott, the state's governor.
Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey beat Republican challenger Bob Hugin to win a third term. The incumbent was reprimanded by a Senate ethics panel after corruption charges were dismissed following a mistrial, turning what should have been a sure bet for Democrats into a close fight.
In one of the first key House races to be called, Democrat Jennifer Wexton scored a victory for her party by defeating incumbent GOP representative Barbara Comstock in a suburban Virginia district that was considered a bellwether by both parties.
But in some other tossup races, the GOP managed to hold on. Republican incumbent Andy Barr fended off a strong challenge from Democrat Amy McGrath, a Naval Academy graduate and the first female Marine to pilot an F/A-18 Hornet in combat, in Kentucky's 6th Congressional District. Still, she was within striking distance in a Lexington-area district Trump won by 15 percentage points in 2016.
In Virginia's 7th District, a Republican-leaning area near Richmond, Republican representative Dave Brat was in a tight race with Democrat Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer.
Democrats picked off two Republican House seats in Florida, including one held by representative Carlos Curbelo. He was defeated by Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. The race was considered a toss-up.
"This was a difficult campaign," Mr Curbelo told reporters in Miami. "This country, our politics are in a very bad place."
In Florida's 27th District, former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala won the seat left open by the retirement of Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a popular moderate Republican.
Those House races, along with several others in states where polls had closed, were being watched for insights into whether Mr Trump can push forward with his agenda unimpeded or find himself restrained by a Democratic-controlled House.
Democrats continued to express confidence that they will win the House. "When Democrats win - and we will win tonight - we will have a Congress that is open, transparent," House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who would like to become the next speaker, told an audience Tuesday evening in Washington.
Mr Trump's polarising impact on the country has driven unusually high interest in the election, the first major political test of his presidency and one that will provide Democrats with clues to the strategy they'll need to challenge him in 2020. The flood of political donations from interest groups and individuals will make it the most expensive midterm ever, and early signs suggest voter turnout could be the highest in half a century.
While the occupant of the White House is typically central to midterm elections, Mr Trump has worked especially hard to make this one about him. Voters agree. Two-thirds of those casting ballots said their vote was about Mr Trump, according to preliminary exit polls posted by CNN. Also, more said they showed up at the polls to express opposition than did those who said they were casting a ballot to support him.
"As president, Donald J. Trump has headlined an unprecedented 50 rallies - 30 in the last two months alone - and he has campaigned for dozens of candidates at all levels of government," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement Tuesday evening. "The president has energised a staggering number of Americans at packed arenas and in overflow crowds at rallies across the country."
Preliminary exit poll results reported by ABC News showed that 18- to 29-year-olds accounted for 13 per cent of voters nationally, up from 11 per cent in 2014. About 15 per cent said that this was the first time they'd voted in a midterm, according to CNN, compared to about 10 per cent who said they were first-time voters in the 2016 election. That could help Democrats because younger voters tend to lean their way.
After a hectic week of campaigning, Mr Trump spent Tuesday at the White House awaiting exit polls and final results. He was active on Twitter throughout much of the day, blasting out endorsements for Republican candidates and weighing in on the balloting.
If Democrats manage to win the House of Representatives, Mr Trump would be left without congressional support to move his agenda forward. The party has pledged to check the president's power and start a slew of investigations on matters including his tax returns, Russian involvement in the 2016 election and actions by his administration.
Democrats have expressed confidence that they'll score the net gain of 23 seats needed to take control of the House for the first time since 2010. While Republicans confront serious headwinds in holding the House, the uniqueness of the contest in each of 435 House districts makes for a wide range in the potential number of seats Democrats may gain.
Both sides agreed before the election, at least privately, that Republicans were strongly favoured to keep control of the Senate, where the electoral map is highly favourable to them. In both Senate and House races, Democrats have focused heavily on healthcare and protecting people with pre-existing medical conditions.
About four in 10 voters choose health care as the most important issue facing the country, and seven in 10 say the nation's healthcare system needs major changes, the exit polling shows. About two in 10 each choose the economy and immigration as their top issue, and just one in 10 say it's gun policy.
Fifty-eight per cent of voters said the country is headed in the wrong direction, compared with 41 per cent who said it is on the right track, according to a nationwide survey conducted in all 50 states for the Associated Press and Fox News. The survey is separate from the traditional exit polls for the television networks.
Mr Trump and Republicans appeared to have the economy on their side heading into the election: unemployment in October held at a 48-year low of 3.7 per cent.
Fernando Rivera, a 53-year-old small-business owner in Miami, said he voted for all Republicans because he wants Congress to support Trump and his economic policies. He said since Mr Trump has been president, he 's hired two more employees for his six-person company.
"Trump is improving the economy - that's the most important thing for me," Mr Rivera said. "Now we just need to heal the country so they can all work together."
He deployed more than 5,000 troops to the border and suggested he may triple that number. His campaign team created an advertisement focused on the caravan that was so racially charged that major TV networks pulled it.
The president's strategy of emphasising divisive issues risked backfiring on Republican candidates in suburban swing districts that probably will determine control of the House. Yet it may have been effective in largely rural states where he remains popular and where many of the closest Senate races are playing out.
The campaign will be the most expensive midterm in history, projected by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics to exceed US$5 billion.
Other records were also falling. At least 255 women were on the ballot as major party congressional candidates. The total number of women serving simultaneously may exceed 100 for the first time.