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GOP picks up Senate seats but falls short of majority

  In Nevada, Majority Leader
Image: Pat Toomey
Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey waves as he arrives to deliver his victory speech to supporters early Wednesday in Fogelsville, Pa., after defeating Democrat Joe Sestak. Carolyn Kaster / AP
/ Source: NBC, and news services

Republicans gained Senate seats in at least six states but fell short of becoming the new majority party in midterm elections Tuesday night, as Democrats hung on in closely watched races in Nevada, California and West Virginia, according to NBC News projections.

The GOP took seats from Democrats in Indiana, Arkansas, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

They needed to win 10 of the dozen Democratic seats in play without losing any of their own to be the new majority party. 

Still undecided late Tuesday were seats held by Democrats in Colorado and Washington. Even if Republicans were to win those races, they would fall short of a majority.

In a race that was a closely watched marker in a year when resurgent Republicans sought to take control of Capitol Hill, voters in Nevada sent Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, back to Congress for a fifth term.

Reid beat back a tough challenge from Sharron Angle, a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement that has jolted American politics with its call for a drastically smaller government and lower taxes. With 99 percent of the ballots in, Reid had garnered 50 percent of the vote and Angle had earned 45 percent.

In a state where the economy has nose-dived and the jobless rate is the nation's highest, defeating Reid was one of the Republicans' top priorities this year.

'Yes we did'During the campaign, Angle challenged Reid to "man up" about his decisions on the economy.

Reid said his manhood had never been questioned before and depicted his challenger as a fringe conservative.

Reid, in his victory speech, told a waiting crowd: “Yes we did. Today Nevada chose hope over fear."

As a former boxer, he said he knew what it was like to take a punch.

"I’ve taken a few,” he said. “But more importantly, I know what it’s like to get back up on your feet.”

He said his campaign had one theme. "If a poor kid from Searchlight (Nev.) can make it, anybody can make it," he said.

“Everyone in Nevada deserves a chance, everyone in America deserves a chance,” he said. “We’re gonna bounce back stronger than ever.”

Angle, saying in her concession speech "we know how to lose," said her campaign had inspired "Main St. America."

“We inspired not only Nevadans but a country,” Angle said, noting about 80 percent of $14 million in donations came mostly from small donations from out of state.

In a closely watched race in Wisconsin, Republican Ron Johnson handed a stunning defeat to three-term Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, NBC News projected.

Johnson depicted his opponent as a big-spending liberal who backed the federal stimulus package and presided over a huge increase in the budget deficit.

Johnson, the chief executive officer of a plastics and polyester company in Oshkosh, sneaked up on Feingold over the summer and blew past him in the polls in September.

In Indiana, Republican Dan Coats defeated Democrat Brad Ellsworth, according to NBC projections.

Coats takes the seat of retiring Democrat Evan Bayh. Coats is not a new face to the Senate — he served from 1989 to 1999 after being appointed to fill the seat of Dan Quayle, who was elected vice president in 1988.

"Hoosiers have every reason to be proud, we went from a seat fundamentally supportive (of President Barack Obama’s policy) to one that firmly opposes it," Coats said.

In Arkansas, Sen. Blanche Lincoln lost her seat to a Republican challenger after months of criticism that she was too closely aligned with the Obama White House, especially on health care.

Middle groundRepublican John Boozman was to become only the second Republican from Arkansas to serve in the Senate since Reconstruction, according to NBC projections.

"I worked hard at reaching out to others to find that middle ground, to be that common sense and try to make our country great. I still don't believe the answers are in the extremes," Lincoln told supporters. "They have to be in the middle. They have to be where we work together."

In North Dakota, Gov. John Hoeven beat poorly funded Democrat Tracy Potter for the Senate seat held by retiring Democrat Byron Dorgan. It was the first time in 24 years that North Dakotans have elected a Republican senator.

In an expensive battle in Illinois, Mark Kirk, a congressman and Obama critic, narrowly defeated state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a basketball buddy of the president who would have been a strong ally in Washington, to take the president's former Senate seat. "A tsunami just hit the heartland," Kirk exulted in his victory speech.

In Pennsylvania, Republican Pat Toomey, a former congressman and head of the anti-tax group Club for Growth, edged Democrat Joe Sestak for the seat of incumbent Arlen Specter, who was knocked out by Sestak in the Democratic primary.

Sestak said he didn’t regret the hard-fought race, despite the outcome: “I’d do it, even knowing the ending, in a heartbeat."

Tea Party-backed Republicans also had strong showings in Florida and Kentucky.

In Florida, Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio won the open Senate seat for Republicans, as the Democratic vote was divided between Kendrick Meek, the Democratic nominee, and Charlie Crist, the former governor who ran as an independent.

"Our nation is headed in the wrong direction and both parties are to blame," Rubio said, adding that people were looking for a "clear and genuine alternative."

In Kentucky, Rand Paul, the son of Republican libertarian Rep. Ron Paul, defeated Democrat Jack Conway.

Paul emerged as the iconic Tea Party candidate this election year after defeating Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's pick to fill Kentucky's open Senate seat in the Republican primary.

"There’s a Tea Party tidal wave and were sending a message to them, a message I will carry with me," Paul declared.

He said it was a message of "fiscal sanity, limited constitutional government and balanced budget."

In California, Democrat Barbara Boxer won her fourth term in the U.S. Senate, dashing GOP hopes of removing the liberal icon with a strong challenge from former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

Fiorina refuses to concedeBoxer's victory was not easy. She faced a multimillionaire candidate and a wave of attack ads funded by out-of-state business and conservative groups. Fiorina blamed Democrats for failed economic policies, but Boxer turned the tables.

Fiorina late Tuesday refused to concede, claiming the vote count showed her and Boxer in a "dead-heat tie."

Boxer, however, thanked supporters for her 11th straight election victory, especially citing donations that matched out-of-state money.

Invoking the San Francisco Giants and their World Series victory Monday, Boxer said, "The Giants beat the Texas Rangers and we beat the Texas polluters tonight."

In Colorado, Tea Party favorite Ken Buck, who beat the Republican establishment candidate in a primary, was running against Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet.

Bennet was the Denver public school superintendent when he was appointed in January 2009 to the Senate to succeed Ken Salazar, who became Interior Secretary.

In other notable races, according to NBC projections:

  • Democrats held onto Vice President Joe Biden's old Senate seat in Delaware, as Chris Coons defeated Tea Party-backed Christine O'Donnell. O'Donnell's quirky comments in old TV interviews — including an admission that she once dabbled in witchcraft — made her the target of late-night comedians. The winner of this race will be immediately seated when the Senate reconvenes on Nov. 15. Despite her loss, O'Donnell declared: "Our voices were heard and we’re not going to be quiet now."
  • West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin held off millionaire Republican John Raese to keep a Democrat in the seat held for half a century by the late Robert C. Byrd. Manchin promised to work with Republicans in Washington. "I’m going there and I intend to work with everyone who's going to put their country first," he said.
  • Republican Sen. Jim DeMint easily won a second six-year term in South Carolina, putting an end to Democratic challenger Alvin Greene's unlikely political rise. Greene, an unemployed military veteran, surprised the political world in June when he came out of nowhere to capture the Democratic nomination. But his campaign soon led to embarrassing revelations: A University of South Carolina student accused him of showing her obscene photos online, and he was indicted on criminal charges.

Also, according to NBC projections:

  • Republicans retained seats in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Georgia, South Dakota and Utah. In Louisiana, incumbent Republican David Vitter survived a barrage of attacks stemming from his involvement with a prostitution ring to handily defeat Democratic challenger Charlie Melancon for a second term.
  • Democrats held on to seats in Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, New York (2), Oregon and Vermont. In Connecticut, popular Democratic state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal weathered an unexpectedly tough race against big-spending former World Wresting Entertainment chief executive Linda McMahon.

Democrats technically hold 57 Senate seats, but two independent senators caucus with the party. While Democrats appeared to retain the majority, some conservative members of the party and independents have not always voted along party lines.