It’s hard to imagine a lower point for the Trump-era Republican Party than early October.
The president was hospitalized at Walter Reed for coronavirus treatment just as three Republican senators — including vulnerable incumbent Thom Tillis — tested positive as well. Cases were spiking, the economy looked stagnant and help was not on the way from Congress. Trump’s belligerent first debate performance was doing real damage to the GOP in private polls across the country, even in deep red states, according to officials working on Senate races.
Meanwhile, Democrats were unveiling eye-popping fundraising numbers in key Senate races, doubling or even tripling their incumbent opponents. Senate Leadership Fund, a GOP super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, started pouring money into conservative strongholds like Alaska, Kansas and South Carolina.
Republicans were fretting about a blow-out of epic proportions.
“I compare it to an airplane where suddenly the cabin pressure drops and you’re going down and the oxygen mask falls out of the ceiling and you’re strapping it on,” said Jesse Hunt, the communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
But in the ensuing weeks, a flood of outside GOP money blunted Democrats’ fundraising advantage. Tillis’ opponent became mired in a sex scandal. And suddenly the polls didn’t look quite as bad in red states as Trump’s more conventional second debate performance stopped the bleeding.
Or as Hunt put it: “The pilot regains control of the aircraft and you’re now just going through normal turbulence.”
In fact, the day after the election, it looked improbably that McConnell would be the majority leader for two more years. The Kentucky senator won his own election handily, while also helping manage the party’s financial resources and steering his caucus through four chaotic years of Trump.
At a Wednesday news conference, McConnell declined to speculate on whether he would keep control of the Senate, with several key races yet to be called. But he is well positioned to hold a narrow Senate majority, even as the man at the top of the ticket faced possible defeat.
“Overall, we had a better election than most people thought across the country,” said the typically understated McConnell.
Several races remain undecided but with the GOP in seeming control, including in North Carolina, where Tillis leads Cal Cunningham. Both races in Georgia could go to runoffs in January, and Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters’ (D-Mich.) race is too close to call. But Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) handily dispatched her opponent after trailing significantly just weeks ago. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) staged one of the most remarkable Senate comebacks of the past decade.
And though Democrats won in two states they were favored, Colorado and Arizona, they didn’t win a single reach state. Not Montana, not South Carolina, not Kansas and certainly not Texas. The Democratic Party and its candidates lapped Republicans on fundraising, but in the end a massive late-game infusion of super PAC money and the NRSC evened the playing field. Notably, the public mood also turned out to be more favorable to Republicans than much of the polling indicated.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, said on Wednesday that Democrats “have a staggering ability to raise money and a stunning ability to waste it.”
“The pollsters got it wrong,” he added in an interview. “They kept moving these races away from us. And it just seems that our candidates never slowed down, never looked back and just kept running and were tough in spite of overwhelming financial [disadvantages.]”
Most election forecasters viewed Senate control as a toss-up, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) had long warned that the map in 2020 was not as good as it will be for Democrats in 2022, given the Republican tilt of the states on Tuesday’s ballot. But before the results came in, Schumer said in an interview that Democrats were “knocking right at the door of taking back the Senate.”
By Wednesday morning, the door was closing.
“We have a huge fundraising disparity, just as we did in 2018, and the president’s struggling,” said Steven Law, a close McConnell ally who leads the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC. But, he added, the GOP had an inherent leg up: “A home field advantage. We have states that mostly trend Republican in presidential elections.”
Nowhere was that home field advantage more important than North Carolina, a state that generally votes Republican but has hosted competitive Senate races for decades. Democrats’ easiest path to the majority was to win North Carolina, and Tillis was wounded.
The square-jawed former statehouse speaker initially sought to distance himself from Trump by opposing the president’s plan to divert military funds for the border wall. But then he reversed himself and aligned with the president closely amid a primary fight, maintaining that posture through the general election. All the while, he was getting massively outraised and outspent.
But his opponent’s image took a beating with the October emergence of his affair with a veteran’s wife. Though Democrats insisted that Cunningham’s scandal was not hurting him in the polls, it certainly did not help him. And he dramatically changed his campaign approach — dropping his freewheeling speaking style in a bid to avoid tough questions from reporters. His campaign declined to reveal his whereabouts in the state for the final month of the race, while Republicans mocked him for hiding.
In a disastrous Zoom call with the press on Oct. 9, Cunningham robotically said he’d taken full responsibility for his infidelity and tried to move on: "I’ve said what I’m going to say about it." Schumer declined to address Cunningham’s plight. But Democrats said the affair wouldn’t matter: Cunningham was still winning, and voters were focused on health care and not his personal life.
But Republicans were ecstatic. They said Cunningham’s positive image suddenly turned negative in their private surveys, at the absolute worst possible time.
“People really start paying attention to elections, even in this election cycle, after Labor Day,” Tillis said in an interview last week.
If Tillis’ slim lead on Wednesday was a surprise, Collins’s performance nearly 1,000 miles up I-95 was an absolute stunner. The moderate Mainer had barely led any polls against Gideon all year — occasionally she was shown as losing by double digits.
But there were signs of Democratic alarm when the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee dropped $4 million in the race in the final days. Republicans said focus groups referred to Gideon as a “newbie” and that Collins’ opposition to Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett burnished her image in Maine as a rare centrist.
“She may have helped herself [with] the stance she took. Not to be antagonistic to the president or to the nominee, but to vote against it and show her capacity for independence,” Law said.
Collins, in a victory speech Wednesday afternoon, called her win historic because she was the first directly-elected Maine senator to win a fifth term.
"I feel that this is an affirmation of the work that I’m doing in Washington,” Collins said.
Collins’ success demonstrated that money only goes so far in Senate campaigns before a saturation point is reached. Gideon had a massive, $70 million to $27 million fundraising advantage — but still lost. The same was true in many other key contests across the Senate map.
GOP Rep. Roger Marshall was swamped by Democrat Barbara Bollier’s money in Kansas but won easily. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) faced a man who became the best Senate fundraiser in history in Jaime Harrison and still cruised to a double-digit victory. McConnell’s opponent, Amy McGrath, raised $90 million only to lose by 20 points.
It wasn’t just in staunchly conservative states. Cunningham outraised Tillis $47.5 million to $23 million. Democrat Theresa Greenfield outraised Ernst $47.5 million to $24 million.
“They had a lot of money on this map and struggled to convert it into wins,” said John Ashbrook, an adviser to McConnell. “They may be headed for a huge reckoning in their party.”
The red-state races like South Carolina and Kansas did require Republicans to pour money into places they didn’t expect to have to defend. But by October, the two major GOP campaign vehicles clearly had the resources to compete.
Democrats have “really been spending on some level since February of last year and they’ve really been gassing us since late January. Between us and SLF, if we didn’t raise the money, what were we going to do?” said Kevin McLaughlin, the executive director of the NRSC. “We’re at $275 million right now. And the previous record is $150 million.”
If there were bright spots for the Democrats, they were firmly out West on Wednesday. Former astronaut Mark Kelly easily bested GOP Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona and former Gov. John Hickenlooper beat first term GOP Sen. Cory Gardner in Colorado as expected. Though some of Schumer’s recruits like Steve Bullock in Montana fell flat, Hickenlooper’s victory spoke to the minority leader’s doggedness in getting his preferred candidates.
Immediately after Hickenlooper launched his ill-fated presidential campaign, he spoke briefly with Schumer.
“I’m not going to bother you while you’re running for president,” Schumer told the former governor of Colorado, according to a source familiar with his recruiting effort. “But if somehow that doesn’t work out, I’m going to come back to you.”
Hickenlooper flamed out of the race for the White House six months later, and the Democratic leader kept his promise. He held an extended conversation with Hickenlooper and his wife, and sent Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo) and former Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) to lobby Hickenlooper by phone.
Hickenlooper thought he could beat Gardner, a talented retail campaigner, but still wasn’t sold on the Senate. Schumer argued that Hickenlooper, a popular two-term governor, could actually make a difference if he joined the upper chamber and Democrats had the majority.
Hickenlooper beat Gardner badly on Tuesday night. But he may not be playing the role he thought he would be.
“I was hoping we would sweep to victory with a number of Senate wins,” he said on MSNBC. His Wednesday morning was “not the level of excitement I was hoping to wake up to.”
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