WASHINGTON – Mitch McConnell emerged from election night a big winner.
For weeks, it appeared that McConnell would lose his Senate Republican majority after winning it just two years ago, but instead he narrowly kept it, with only two seats likely going to the Democrats.
On top of that, the Kentucky state House of Representatives, the last remaining legislative chamber in the South controlled by Democrats, went Republican in a big way. It was an outcome that McConnell, Kentucky’s senior senator, had long desired.
“That only added a little more happiness to my evening,” a cheerful McConnell said Wednesday in Washington.
Kentucky’s senior senator emerges from Tuesday’s election perhaps even more powerful than before. Republicans now control the State Capitol and governorship in Kentucky, as well as the entire Congress and White House in Washington.
Democrats had been nearly certain of retaking control but saw their hopes fizzle as endangered GOP incumbents won in Missouri, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and even Democrat-friendly Wisconsin.
Republicans also held on to a GOP seat in Indiana. GOP-held New Hampshire remained too close to call on Wednesday morning, but even if Democrats eked out a win there it would not make a difference.
New Hampshire Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan declared victory in the Senate race Wednesday morning, with GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte conceding the race Wednesday afternoon. Only several hundred votes divided the candidates.
Hassan’s win gives the Democrats and the Independents who caucus with them 48 seats in the Senate, while the Republicans have 51.
It was as good an outcome as any Republican could hope for, and McConnell had a significant role in making it a reality.
“The fact that we kept ourselves in the game is a good credit to McConnell’s leadership,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican political consultant in Kentucky.
For McConnell, 74, this year’s election represents the latest turning point for a veteran lawmaker first elected to the Senate in 1984 — the peak of the Reagan era. Those who know McConnell say he’s always been adaptable to changes in his party.
McConnell had a challenging map this year, with Republicans defending 24 seats, made even more unpredictable by presidential nominee Donald Trump.
If he’d lost the majority, McConnell stood a good chance of gaining it back in two years, with Democrats defending 25 seats. But after Tuesday’s results, Republicans are poised for even more gains in two years — perhaps even a filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes.
“The playing field is so favorable in 2018,” Jennings said, “it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.”
Instead of licking his wounds and contemplating another two years in the minority, McConnell gets to set the agenda in the Senate. He can schedule votes and decide committee assignments and leadership.
McConnell also has other reasons to celebrate. His decision in February to not let the Senate take up President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court appears to have paid off.
Now Trump will get to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, he’ll fill it with a conservative and a Republican Senate will get to confirm the nominee.
“He comes out looking like he picked all the right stocks before a big shift in the economy,” said Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky.
McConnell can also count on Trump to undo the various Obama executive actions that Republicans say have hurt coal.
But there is a risk that comes with one-party control of government, and McConnell knows that. Obama took office in 2009 with healthy majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Republicans took over the House in the 2010 midterm election.
And indeed in Kentucky, one-party rule of state government risks the kind of overreach that has produced some backlash this week in states such as Kansas and North Carolina.
Although it’s Democrats, not Republicans, who face the more difficult Senate electoral map in 2018, McConnell told reporters on Wednesday that he isn’t taking anything for granted.
“I don’t think we should act as if we’ll be in the majority forever,” he said. “We’ve been given a temporary lease on power. We should use it responsibly.”