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Democrats more likely to retain Senate after Mark Kelly wins reelection in Arizona

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We begin this hour with more information about the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. In Arizona, the Democrat, Senator Mark Kelly, has won a close race against Republican Blake Masters, according to the Associated Press. NPR's Ximena Bustillo joins us now from Phoenix. Ximena, thanks for being with us.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Thank you.

SIMON: And how close was this race?

BUSTILLO: Well, there are still outstanding votes right now, but Mark Kelly is up by a little more than 5 percentage points, more than 120,000 votes. He took a lead in the counting earlier this week, and Masters simply never made up the difference. Kelly was able to pull through enough votes to keep the seat, which is a major win for Democrats. And his strategy was to lean away from Biden and into moderate and independent voters. He even held a Republicans for Kelly event, with former Senator John McCain staffers and his son Jack McCain. The former NASA astronaut was first elected into the Senate in 2020, during a special election following the death of the late McCain. So this will be his first full six-year term. GOP candidate Blake Masters did receive the Trump endorsement. But Kelly's win is so far showing that he may have gained greater margins than last time and won over more voters. In 2020, Kelly won by 2.4% and 78,000 votes. And as I said, as of Friday night, he's ahead by 5% and more than 120,000 votes. Of course, final tallies are still to come.

SIMON: Ximena, what took so long to count?

BUSTILLO: Well, vote tabulation in Arizona is a long game. Each county has their own method. And in Maricopa County, early ballots are what takes the longest to tabulate. And when they tabulate them, they do it on a first-in, first-out basis for all the ballots. A record number of voters - in fact, 290,000 - voted on Election Day by taking the ballot that was mailed to them and dropping it into a box on Election Day, as opposed to mailing it in sooner. That's 290,000 ballots to verify and count after Election Day, which was also a record. The morning after Election Day, there were 500,000 ballots left in Maricopa County alone, and it really could have swung the election either way. Did Republican voters save their vote until Election Day, or did Democrats vote early enough to make the difference? The first set of those ballots delivered Kelly the win. So it's a good sign for Democrats, for now, in some of those other close races in the state.

SIMON: Tell us about other races for the Senate, if you could, and control of the House.

BUSTILLO: Sure. With Kelly's win, there are 47 Democratic senators in the upcoming Congress, as well as two independents who caucus with the Democrats. We are still awaiting results from Nevada and Georgia. Nevada's Senate race will be decided in the coming days, while Georgia's heads to a runoff on December 6. It's a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure situation for the Democrats. If Senator Catherine Cortez Masto wins in Nevada, Democrats have the majority, and Georgia is just a bonus. If Senator Cortez Masto loses, then Democrats must win Georgia's runoff to maintain control of the Senate.

As for the House, there's still no clear winner, though things continue to look good for Republicans to take the majority. How slim that majority might be is the thing we're not sure yet. Here in Arizona, there are still two outstanding House races, which are very close. And that's true of races all over, especially in California. So it's more hurry up and wait before we know exactly who might hold the gavel in the House at the start of the 118th Congress in January.

SIMON: NPR's Ximena Bustillo in Phoenix, thanks so much.

BUSTILLO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.