By Manu Raju - 11/04/08 08:59 PM EST
McConnell's win in Kentucky over Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford makes it harder for Democrats to reach 60 seats in the Senate, which would give them enormous power to push through legislation.
Democrats have already picked up three Senate seats Tuesday, expanding their majority to 54-46, with a host of races still to be decided.
Dragged down by the economic slump, McConnell suddenly found himself in a tight race against Lunsford in a reliably Republican state that he won with 64 percent of the vote in 2002.
Despite big GOP losses on his watch, McConnell — along with Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) — will likely hang onto the top three leadership spots in the conference next year, according to many GOP aides and senators.
Unlike the House GOP, Senate Republican leaders are unlikely to be blamed for the possible landslide loss on Tuesday. Already, the Senate GOP has blamed their losses on a deeply unpopular president, the sagging economy and a steep disadvantage in the number of GOP seats to defend this cycle.
“I think everybody understands the conditions we are running in,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is expected to win his race Tuesday, said in an interview. “I don’t see any blowback directed at them.”
Democrats currently hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate and have already picked up seats in Virginia, New Hampshire and North Carolina.
Democrats are also favored to pick up open Senate seats in Colorado and New Mexico.
Polling has found Democratic challengers ahead in three other states: Alaska, Minnesota and Oregon.
In Alaska’s Senate race, Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in history, is trying to hold onto his seat despite his conviction last month on felony charges of concealing gifts from an oil executive. Polls close at midnight in the eastern part of the state and 1 a.m. in the western part.
Both sides have paid close attention to McConnell’s race and two in the Deep South, at least one of which Democrats must win to reach 60 seats: Georgia’s contest in the seat held by Republican Saxby Chambliss and Mississippi’s seat held by Republican Roger Wicker. Polls in Georgia close at 7 p.m., and Mississippi's close at 8 p.m.
All times are EST.
In a new Congress with a powerful Democratic majority and a possible Democratic president, the GOP leadership team would immediately face a choice: whether to work closely in a bipartisan fashion or resort to confrontational tactics.
If McCain loses, McConnell will be under enormous pressure to lead his party out of the wilderness.
“All the rhetoric will be ‘can we all get along,’ but he’ll be under incredible pressure to come back and be confrontational,” one former GOP leadership aide said.
Many Republicans expect McConnell to emerge as a more focused leader next Congress, since his strategy this year was often complicated by his own reelection fight and the GOP keeping its distance from President Bush.
Some argue that showcasing bipartisanship will win over voters, pointing to the election-year success of some Republicans, like Alexander, who largely shied away from sharp partisan rhetoric and instead promoted working across the aisle.
But that strategy would partly be determined by how a President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi decide to govern – whether they negotiate with the GOP or attempt to railroad legislation through with their robust majority.
Republicans view that scenario as a political boon, since it would unify a broken Republican Party, similar to how President Bush’s failed attempt to overhaul Social Security unified Democrats after they lost the 2004 elections.
“The best thing they can do for the Republicans is to immediately try to ram through tax hikes, more spending and not try to work with Republicans to find common ground,” one senior Senate GOP aide said.
If Democrats fall just short of 60 seats in Tuesday’s election, the strength of GOP centrists will enormously increase since Democrats will likely try to negotiate with the small number of remaining liberal Republicans in order to get enough support for their policy measures in the Senate.
But if McCain pulls off an upset win, the GOP leadership may be cast aside altogether as the Republican president negotiates with a powerful Democratic majority in order to get legislation to his desk.
“If Sen. McCain is president, then they are going to be in a very, very difficult position since Sen. McCain will want bipartisan compromises,” one GOP strategist said.
With McConnell's win, the only anticipated leadership fight will be for the No. 4 position of GOP policy chairman and No. 5 spot as conference vice chairman. The current conference vice chairman, Cornyn, plans to run for the head of the campaign arm, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) plans to relinquish to run for the policy position. That will open up a fight for the No. 5 spot, possibly between Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
If Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) wins Tuesday against comedian Al Franken, he is expected to challenge Cornyn for the NRSC chairmanship.
Leadership elections will be held the week of Nov. 17, when the 110th Congress returns for a brief lame-duck session.