Claire McCaskill and Chuck Schumer had a seemingly picayune run-in over the summer that spoke volumes about the Democrats’ lousy performance in a slate of battleground Senate races Tuesday.
The embattled Missouri Democrat’s campaign was on high-octane, flush with cash and, in McCaskill’s opinion, in no need of outside help from the Democrats’ campaign arm to run TV ads. But Schumer, the Senate minority leader, kept pushing: He wanted the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to blanket Missouri’s airwaves with TV commercials.
McCaskill prevailed, persuading Schumer to pump more than $6.5 million into the Missouri Democratic Party to give her turnout operation a dramatic boost, according to multiple people familiar with the conversations. It was the type of political cunning that the two-term senator had demonstrated in the past to win close Senate races.
McCaskill lost anyway.
Across the country, Democrats similarly out-raised their Republican opponents and built field operations that they hoped would weather a brutal Senate map that tilted heavily in Republicans’ favor. But this time, it wasn’t enough: Opponent Josh Hawley won by 6 points, exorcising the party’s demons in Missouri, and probably three other Democratic incumbents went down alongside her despite battle-hardened campaigns and big financial advantages.
President Donald Trump’s popularity and swaggering campaign presence was simply too much for even the best-run campaigns. Republicans avoided the kind of devastating gaffes that boosted McCaskill and Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) in 2012, and unlike that year, there was no presidential campaign to boost Democratic turnout.
“This state drives me crazy,” McCaskill said in her concession speech, “but I love every corner of it.”
As Democrats captured the House on Tuesday, their hopes of retaking the Senate in 2020 drifted further away. McCaskill, Donnelly and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) all lost, and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) appeared on his way to suffering the same fate, pending a recount. The party struggled mightily in Trump country and in states that were the cornerstones of the eight-year Democratic majority, from 2007 until 2015.
This story, based on interviews over the final months of the campaign with senators, candidates, congressional aides and political strategists, confirmed what became clear on election night: The suburbs may have gone for House Democrats, but the Senate map was so bad that sweeping Democratic enthusiasm did nothing to dent the Republican majority. In fact, its majority grew.
Trump’s personal investment in the Senate sealed the deal. He crisscrossed the country, hitting some states multiple times — all the while delivering sound bites that Republican hopefuls used to promote themselves and bash their opponents.
“We have always felt like we’re running with President Trump no matter what,” said Chris Hansen, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “We think he’s a huge asset, to be clear. These rallies are not by mistake.”
It wasn’t a total rout for Republicans. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin survived in a state Trump carried by 42 points;Montana Sen. Jon Tester won narrowly; Rep. Jacky Rosen unseated Republican Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada; and the Arizona race remained too close to call Wednesday morning. Those bright spots, plus a newly rebuilt Midwestern blue wall, eased the sting somewhat for Democrats.
It could have been even worse. Democrats believed at least two of their incumbents would have retired if Hillary Clinton had won the election in 2016, rather than taking on an almost impossible reelection campaign, according to senators and aides. Instead, Democrats entered the 2018 cycle with all their incumbents running, so the GOP quickly set out to pick off the weakest of the herd.
It wasn’t a straight shot, however. In some states, Republicans had to resolve their own thorny politics before they could zero in on Democrats.
In Indiana, for instance, Republicans knew they were staring at a long, nasty primary. GOP officials worried it would give Donnelly, one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for reelection, an easy year-and-a-half to prepare. Sure enough, GOP Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer began tearing each other apart during the summer of 2017.
So the GOP set out to define Donnelly, a low-key presence during his first term in Washington. If there was one thing that distinguished Donnelly, it was his blue-collar appeal and attacks on outsourcing jobs. So when Donnelly was forced to sell stock in his brother’s company following news reports that it produced products in Mexico, Republicans smelled opportunity.
John Ashbrook, a GOP strategist and former aide to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, settled on the Trump-like nickname “Mexico Joe.” It followed Donnelly everywhere: Republicans even hired a mariachi band to follow the Democrat to events.
The move put Donnelly on the defensive as the GOP’s bloody primary played out. The low-key Donnelly ended up drawing a second unflattering sobriquet courtesy of Trump: “Sleepin’ Joe.”
He lost by nearly 10 points on Tuesday night.
The intense focus on the most fertile states — Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota and Florida, and three GOP-controlled states, Tennessee, Arizona, and Nevada — wasn’t an accident. McConnell and his lieutenants made the decision to fight on friendly territory and not try to shoot for a filibuster-proof majority, which was not beyond the realm of possibility two years ago.
McConnell had developed a mantra informed from his own history as a two-term NRSC chairman: Don’t fall in love with the map. Trump had won 10 states where Democratic senators were now facing reelection, raising hopes that Republicans could pile up victories in those states and stirring fears among Democrats of spending money in the populous, pricey states of Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
When spring 2018 came around, GOP groups were preparing to decide where to spend their money. When the time came to discuss publicly where the battle to control the Senate would be lost or won, McConnell looked straight past the Rust Belt that had put Trump over the top and focused on more inviting targets.
Republicans working on those races were incensed that McConnell was setting them adrift, and big GOP money never flowed in over the closing stretch even after the GOP sunk millions into ousting Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin. But it was a simple acknowledgment that no matter how good things appeared for Republicans, they simply couldn’t win everywhere.
“McConnell did something smart early on. It must have been hard to cut loose” that many states that Trump won, said J.B. Poersch, who runs the Democratic outside group Senate Majority PAC. “To come to the table and say ‘those states aren’t a priority for us’: That was pretty ballsy.”
Republicans said the decision not to compete in pricey Midwestern states boosted their odds elsewhere.
“We saw data showing Trump’s image in those states had waned significantly and his job approval was underwater in each of them,” said Steven Law, president of the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund. “That didn’t change.”
The ceding of those four states provided a blue wall of sorts for Democrats. But the party still needed to capitalize on at least one of their pick-up opportunities to have any claim to success. And Sen. Dean Heller’s rocky relationship with Trump opened the door.
Heller (R-Nev.) didn’t endorse Trump in the presidential race and fought the GOP’s efforts to repeal Obamacare in the spring of 2017, famously holding a press conference alongside GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval to pan the Senate GOP’s health care bill. The move drew the ire of Trump, who mused about whether Heller “wants to remain a senator.”
The Nevada Republican quickly moved back toward Trump. He vocally embraced Obamacare repeal, which helped head off a primary challenge. But Heller’s pro-Trump turn gave Democrats plenty of ammunition, and Heller, who also faced the Democratic apparatus assembled by retired Democratic Leader Harry Reid, was trounced.
“He sold his soul to avoid a primary,” said a senior Democrat working on Senate races. “It hurt him with independents. That’s the game that matters.”
In the end, Manchin and Tester were the only seriously endangered incumbents from either party to win reelection. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) was trailing at the end of the night but did not concede the race, which is headed to a recount.
Tester’s close race was indicative of the treacherous electoral terrain Democrats had to navigate. Though well liked in his state, Tester knew his reelection would be a slog, given the conservative bent of Montana. Republicans failed to get their top recruits, ending up with state auditor and insurance commissioner Matt Rosendale, a developer with a Maryland accent and a less-than-ideal candidate.
Yet Republicans still saw Tester as beatable. He had ticked off the president by derailing his Veterans Affairs nominee Ronny Jackson, and the president was eager for revenge. But no GOP groups had fully committed to beating Tester.
In early September, leaders from the Club for Growth, Senate Leadership Fund, the Chamber of Commerce and the pro-Trump America First PAC convened to sketch out a plan to spend money on behalf of Rosendale. Club for Growth President David McIntosh had helped boost the conservative nominee through the primary, and he told leaders of the other outside groups that they needed to engage.
Each group picked a week or two to spend money against Tester down the stretch, but no group went all in against him. “This was a significant investment that could be less than a sure thing, so let’s share the risk,” said Law of the Senate Leadership Fund.
It wasn’t enough, and Tester escaped with a narrow victory, a rare bright spot for his party.