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5 Surprises from the 2018 Midterm Elections

From the Indiana Senate race to the Atlanta suburbs, a scattering of the unexpected

Republican Senate candidate for Indiana Mike Braun defeated Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, by nearly double digits. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Republican Senate candidate for Indiana Mike Braun defeated Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, by nearly double digits. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Most midterm elections have dozens of individual House and Senate races that remain unpredictable right up until — and after — the polls close on Election Day. The 2018 cycle was no different, with 22 House and three Senate races still uncalled by 10:15 a.m. Wednesday.

But each year, there are a few races that experts thought they had a handle on, only to be flummoxed by the results.

Here are five surprise results from Tuesday night:

1. Braun wins Indiana Senate in a blowout fashion

Republican businessman Mike Braun, who painted himself as a political outsider in the GOP primary against two Republican members of Congress, cruised past Sen. Joe Donnelly on Tuesday, outpacing the Democratic incumbent by nearly double digits.

Polls had the Senate contest in the Hoosier State neck-and-neck heading into Tuesday. It wasn’t so much that Braun won that was surprising — by Election Day, Indiana was the only Senate race that remained a Tossup, according to ratings by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales — as it was the margin by which he dispatched Donnelly.

Braun’s resounding victory dealt an early, crushing blow to Senate Democrats’ already-small hopes of eking out a path to a majority in the upper chamber.

Donnelly appeared to have a handle on his re-election bid after winning his primary. But Braun began to pick up momentum in the fall, partly because Republicans were tuning in late, partly because he kicked more of his own money into his campaign, and partly because of the confirmation chaos surrounding Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Donnelly, whose tenure will end after just one term in a state Trump won by nearly 20 points, was one of three Democrats to vote for Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch last year. But his break with Trump on Kavanaugh may have turned off some GOP and independent voters who’d been willing to stick with him over Braun.

2. Democrat swipes GOP stronghold in Oklahoma’s 5th District

This was one of those results that, for many viewers at home, probably came out of left field.

Us, too.

Former Democratic congressional aide Kendra Horn pulled off the upset of the night for Democrats by defeating Republican Rep. Steve Russell in Oklahoma’s 5th District, which includes Oklahoma City.

Trump won Russell’s district by nearly 14 points in 2016, and Russell never told the National Republican Congressional Committee that he was in any trouble in his bid for a third term, a source with knowledge of the conversations told Roll Call.

Inside Elections rated the race Solid Republican.

Democrats in Washington will be happy to have Horn, who had this to say:

3. Democratic women sweep three Virginia swing districts

When it became clear on Tuesday that Democratic state Sen. Jennifer Wexton would sail to victory over Virginia GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock, many experts, including Roll Call political reporter Simone Pathe, predicted the result would prove a good omen for other Democratic challengers in heavily suburban, GOP-held districts.

Those predictions rang true, as Democrats booted suburban Republican incumbents en route to a House majority.

You didn’t have to look far from Wexton’s 10th District for other examples.

Former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger felled hardline conservative Rep. Dave Brat in Virginia’s 7th District with a strong showing in the Richmond suburbs.

And on the coast in Virginia’s 2nd District, U.S. Navy veteran Elaine Luria upset GOP Rep. Scott Taylor, whose campaign was mired in scandal after local news outlets discovered four of his campaign staffers submitted petition sheets with forged signatures in an alleged scheme to put a former Democratic candidate on the ballot to siphon votes away from Luria.

Both Luria and Spanberger blew past historical Democratic deficits in party favorability in the districts. Trump carried the 2nd District by 3.4 points and the 7th District by 6.5 points in 2016.

One Democratic operative in Virginia described the mood Tuesday night as “absolute ecstasy and insanity.”

Inside Elections had rated Spanberger’s race against Brat a Tossup and Luria’s race against Taylor Tilts Republican.

4. In Atlanta suburbs, money can’t buy everything

With all precincts reporting in Georgia’s 6th District, Democratic activist Lucy McBath appears poised to upset GOP Rep. Karen Handel.

McBath led Handel by 2,872 votes as of noon on Wednesday.

Inside Elections had rated the race Leans Republican.

Handel defeated state lawmaker Jon Ossoff in a special election for the suburban Atlanta district in 2017 that received national attention as a test of Trump’s popularity in white suburban areas.

Ossoff raised and spent a record $31 million on that election. McBath, just two weeks before the election, had raised $1.2 million. That’s 3 percent of Ossoff’s haul.

Handel beat Ossoff by 3.8 percent.

A few miles to the east, in Georgia’s 7th District, a mirror image of the 6th in terms of demographics and economic status, the outcome is also razor thin, though, for now, it favors Republican incumbent Rob Woodall.

With all precincts reporting by noon Wednesday, Woodall, whose race Inside Elections also rated Leans Republican, led by 1,299 votes.

5. Dems flip Mark Sanford’s South Carolina District

Democrat Joe Cunningham’s win in South Carolina’s 1st District is a blow to Republicans who thought they’d hold on to the coastal seat even after South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford lost a GOP primary earlier this year.

Tuesday’s upset was another example of the perils Republicans face when they elect hardline conservatives like Katie Arrington over more moderate incumbents in the primaries.

Trump carried the Charleston-area seat by 11 points in 2016.

Trump openly supported Arrington over Sanford, one of the few members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who has spoken ill of the president. But Sanford may have gotten the last laugh after the president’s hand-picked candidate fell short in the general election in a race Republicans should have won.

Watch: Wexton Win Was One of Tuesday’s First Flips

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— Simone Pathé and Bridget Bowman contributed to this story.

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