WASHINGTON — The race for president is likely down to three states in the Rust Belt –and it might take days to sort out.
But Georgia also remains in doubt, with the potential to considerably shake up the pathways to the presidency.
President Donald Trump appeared to stave off Democratic challenger Joe Biden in at least four crucial battleground states that the former vice president hoped badly to flip, shifting the focus to Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania to potentially decide the election.
Trump holds preliminary leads in Michigan and Pennsylvania, but Biden pulled ahead in Wisconsin, and the majority of the outstanding votes still to be counted are absentee ballots expected to favor Biden. Absentee ballots remain critical in several pivotal states, and deadlines to have them counted vary by state.
In the battle for control of Congress, Democrats’ path toward retaking the Senate tightened overnight as Republicans fended off challenges in several states. In the House, Democrats were expected to maintain control, but several key swing districts flipped to Republican control.
Here’s what we know after Tuesday night and what we don’t:
In a blow to Democrats, Trump defeated Biden in two Sun Belt states – Florida and Texas – plus the Midwestern battleground of Ohio. Georgia was still too close to call as votes around Democrat-heavy Atlanta remained uncounted early Wednesday morning. North Carolina also remained too close to call, with absentee ballots to be counted.
The outcomes in the South spoiled Biden’s hopes for a decisive victory on election night and rattled Democrats fearful of a repeat of the 2016 election. Trump won all five of those states four years ago but Biden had spent significant time and money trying to expand the electoral map.
Biden, however, flipped one state that Trump carried in 2016, Arizona. And potentially critical for his chances, Biden also claimed one electoral vote from Nebraska by winning the state’s 2nd Congressional District. Nebraska hands out it electoral votes both statewide and by congressional district. It has five total; Trump won the other four.
Trump did not flip any state that he lost four years ago. That includes New Hampshire and Minnesota, a state the president’s campaign was bullish about. Nevada, another state Trump targeted, did not have a declared winner as of early Wednesday morning.
That leaves the Electoral College standing at Trump with 213 electoral votes and Biden 238 electoral votes with several critical states, including Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, still undecided.
After Trump won them in 2016 by a combined roughly 80,000 votes, the same three Rust Belt states were on the table for both candidates as of Wednesday morning.
Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were a part of the much vaunted blue wall that Trump was able to crack in 2016.
But thanks to his victory in Arizona, Biden could hit 270 electoral votes exactly if he wins both Wisconsin and Michigan, while holding on to Nevada. He would not need to win Pennsylvania or Georgia.
Trump would clear 270 electoral votes by carrying two out of the three Midwest states, but only if he holds on in Georgia. If Biden wins Georgia, he could reach 270 by winning only one of the three Rust Belt states.
Vote counts have been slow in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania because absentee ballots could not be processed until just before or on Election Day. None of the three state legislatures – each controlled by Republicans – passed legislation to allow extended pre-election processing of absentee ballots, as some other states did. Each state received a record number of mail-in ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In Michigan, absentee ballots had to arrive by Election Day to be counted. The same goes for Wisconsin after the U.S. Supreme Court last week upheld the state’s voting laws.
But Pennsylvania is counting all absentee ballots received by Nov. 6 after the U.S. Supreme Court last week refused a challenge from state Republicans for a second time to reimpose an Election Day deadline.
But absentee ballots received after Tuesday will be segregated from those received earlier. If the state turns out to be pivotal, the high court could consider the state GOP’s challenge after the election.
Absentee ballots are also key in North Carolina, which must be postmarked by Election Day but can be counted if they are received by Nov. 12. In Georgia, absentee ballots can be counted if they were postmarked by Election Day and arrive at county election offices by 7 p.m. three business days later.
If the race boils down to Pennsylvania, the counting could be the subject of litigation.
Prior to Election Day, Trump vowed he would likely take legal action if he believes the election is conducted unfairly in Pennsylvania. “As soon as that election’s over, we’re going in with our lawyers,” Trump said this week.
He said it would be unfair for Pennsylvania and other states to count ballots after Tuesday – as they are now doing. At least five counties in Pennsylvania have already announced they will not be counting absentee and mail-in ballots until the day after Election Day.
The chances of Democrats flipping enough seats to take control of the Senate appeared to be dwindling, as Republicans fended off challenges in a number of key races.
Democrats need at least two more wins — three if former Vice President Joe Biden does not win the presidential race — to take control of the chamber. While they boasted wins in Colorado and Arizona, the path to taking the majority appeared to narrow as votes were counted elsewhere.
Republicans came out on top in several battleground states, offering some relief to conservatives worried the COVID-19 crisis and economic contraction that followed President Donald Trump’s management of the pandemic could mean them losing power in the chamber.
Democrats are expected to retain control of the House of Representatives but optimistic projections that they would be expanding their already robust margin are falling short.
Instead, Republicans have enjoyed some bragging rights, unseating freshmen incumbents in South Florida, New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Carolina, while successfully defending what looked to be several vulnerable seats in Texas and elsewhere. And early Wednesday, the GOP claimed its biggest prize by knocking off 15-term Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota.
Contributing: Christal Hayes and Ledge King, USA TODAY.
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Election Day is over. The election isn’t. What we know, what we don’t.