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Battle for the Senate: Top of ticket dominates

Battle for the Senate: Top of ticket dominates
© Greg Nash

This is the last of a three-part series on behind-the-scenes maneuvering for control of the Senate. The reporting on this series started in summer 2016. Read the first installment here and the second installment here.

Three days after the first presidential debate of 2016, Senate Republican chiefs of staff gathered in the office of Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) to assess their chances of keeping their narrow majority.

The mood was surprisingly buoyant: Republican presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpProject Veritas surveilled government officials to expose anti-Trump sentiments: report Cheney: Fox News has 'a particular obligation' to refute election fraud claims The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? MORE had turned in a dismal performance in his first matchup with Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton to speak at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders summit More than half of eligible Latinos voted in 2020, setting record Fox News signs Trey Gowdy, Dan Bongino for new shows MORE, but early numbers showed he wasn’t the drag on GOP Senate candidates they once feared.

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Some of the assembled chiefs believed that, in a worst-case scenario, the new Senate would be split evenly, 50-50, between Democrats and Republicans and that the GOP could recapture the majority in 2017, when a special election to Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineSenate Democrats ramp up push to limit Biden's war powers Sweeping election reform bill faces Senate buzz saw How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force MORE’s seat in Virginia would take place. Even Republicans assumed Clinton would win the presidency.

But in the days that followed, more numbers came in, and internal Republican polls showed voters beginning to associate Trump with the most vulnerable Republican senators facing reelection in November. The generic ballot, a reliable indicator of how voters felt about the two parties, tilted 5 to 10 points in Democrats’ favor.

“My concern this weekend was that for the first time in this campaign I saw the image of Republicans being linked to the image of Trump,” a senior official at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) wrote to some Senate Republican chiefs of staff.

Almost overnight, the bottom dropped out of the GOP’s hard-fought effort to retain the majority. They had just a month left to repair what might be irreparable damage.

But in a roller coaster year, as Democrats and Republicans fought a billion-dollar war for control of the U.S. Senate, the highest highs often followed the lowest lows.

A month after the Republican laments, the FBI said it was investigating emails possibly related to the private server Clinton used as secretary of State. Democrats got a fright on Halloween, when internal polling showed Clinton falling a point behind Trump — and several Democratic Senate candidates sinking with her.

This is the story of the final month in the battle for control of the Senate based on interviews with more than two dozen senior strategists, pollsters, donors, and Senate and campaign officials from both parties.

TRUMP VS. CLINTON

In the final sprint, both sides realized they had to contend with two factors largely out of their control: Trump and Clinton.

Trump had always been a vexing problem for Republican incumbents. On one hand, they needed Trump’s most loyal supporters to vote for them, too. On the other, they needed to distance themselves from Trump’s more outlandish comments to attract moderates and independents. The tug-and-pull forced every Republican to develop some kind of stock answer, though the contortions placated no one.

“You assumed there was going to be some kind of drag from the top of the ticket, but much more impactful was your inability to control your own conversation,” said one top Senate GOP strategist. “He just took over the airwaves. Anything that Trump said or did was like covering the moon landing. It just sucked the oxygen out of everything else.”

Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteSununu seen as top recruit in GOP bid to reclaim Senate Lobbying world Overnight Defense: NATO expanding troops in Iraq MORE (R-N.H.) had faced repeated Democratic attempts to tie her to the top of her ticket. She made the situation immeasurably worse in a debate on Oct. 2, when she said Trump could be a role model for children.

Ayotte’s campaign tried to walk back the remark, but Democratic challenger Maggie Hassan’s campaign had a new advertisement interspersing Ayotte’s debate answer with Trump’s more outlandish pronouncements up and running within hours.

The race had been as tight as possible: In 22 public polls taken in 2016, only five showed one candidate or the other leading outside the margin of error. The two sides poured more than $100 million into television advertising in a tiny state with only two significant media markets; by September, an advertisement in the Manchester market cost as much as an ad in New York City’s media market.

Ayotte’s debate slip-up came to dominate the race at a critical juncture. If Trump was going to have an adverse impact on the rest of his party, it would likely come in New Hampshire. 

TRUMP ON TAPE

Less than a week later, The Washington Post published B-roll video of Trump’s 2005 appearance on “Access Hollywood” in which a hot mic caught Trump bragging about forcing himself on women and grabbing them without their consent. Ayotte rescinded her support for Trump, reminding voters once again that she had backed him in the past. What’s more, taking back her support cost her among Trump’s most diehard fans; internal polls showed Ayotte losing support not from the middle, but from the right.

“It was an unforced error, and it came at exactly the wrong time,” one frustrated Republican pollster said. 

“It’s her own fault, but it’s because of Trump,” said another.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Biden, Senate GOP take step toward infrastructure deal as other plans hit speed bumps Senate GOP to give Biden infrastructure counteroffer next week Masks shed at White House; McConnell: 'Free at last' MORE (R-Ky.) spent the day after the video’s release checking in with his candidates. While most Republicans immediately distanced themselves from Trump, McConnell was notably silent. He didn’t want to force his candidates to respond to anything he said on the matter.

In Missouri, Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntOn The Money: Biden, Senate GOP take step toward infrastructure deal as other plans hit speed bumps Senate GOP to give Biden infrastructure counteroffer next week Biden says he and GOP both 'sincere about' seeking infrastructure compromise MORE (R) told McConnell he had no plans to distance himself from Trump. At every event he attended, Blunt told the leader, his most loyal supporters were wearing Trump shirts. The video seemed like a big deal on cable television, Blunt said, but his constituents didn’t seem to care.

Democrats scrambled to understand how best to take advantage. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the House Majority PAC, the Senate Majority PAC and Priorities USA Action all commissioned surveys within hours of the tape’s release.

The results vindicated DCCC Executive Director Kelly Ward’s strategy of tying all Republicans to Trump and honed the Democratic closing argument: In nominating and then standing by Trump, Republicans had chosen politics over patriotism.

HECK FEELS PRESSURE

In Nevada, Rep. Joe Heck (R) felt the pressure, too. He had led virtually every public poll in the race for retiring Democratic Sen. Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidBottom line Biden's first 100 days is stylistic 'antithesis' of Trump The Memo: Washington's fake debate on 'bipartisanship' MORE’s seat through the summer, but the leaked Trump tape came just before early voting began in Nevada. Trump was having his worst week of the campaign just before voters went to the polls.

Heck was heckled when he said a few days after the video’s release that he could no longer back Trump; Heck said he would write in the name of Trump’s running mate, Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceThe Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? Pelosi says GOP downplaying Capitol riot 'sick' and 'beyond denial' What's a party caucus chair worth? MORE, though a CNN reporter pointed out that Nevada did not allow voters to write in a presidential candidate. At a closed-door fundraiser, audio of which was published on CNN, Heck said he wanted to support Trump — comments that ended up in still more Democratic advertising.

Outside groups had spent months softening up former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto’s (D) image, criticizing a backlog of rape kits that had piled up while she was attorney general. Her negative ratings jumped with each passing week.

But Heck had vulnerabilities, too: One advertisement, paid for by VoteVets, criticized Heck for taking a paycheck while the government was shut down. The advertisement featured a Vietnam veteran from Las Vegas, seeking to undermine Heck’s appeal to military voters.

“His military record deserves respect, but back in D.C., Joe Heck is putting politics before Nevada. And that doesn’t work for me,” the veteran, Robert Nard, said in the ad. Democrats saw the spot as a moment of change in the race.

Heck had led 12 public polls conducted since July, but Masto led two of four polls released after Oct. 10, and a third was tied. Internal GOP polling showed Heck slipping behind.

As the early votes rolled in, Republicans grew even more pessimistic. Long lines in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods seemed to signal a robust turnout among an increasingly reliable Democratic constituency. Jon Ralston, the Nevada political expert, declared Trump’s chances in the Silver State “dead” over the weekend before Election Day — and he cast a similarly dismal pall over Heck’s chances.

SPENDING STRATEGIES

The NRSC’s strategy of spending its money early meant the party was being vastly outspent by its Democratic counterpart late. The NRSC had spent $31 million between August and September, while the DSCC spent just $13 million. But beginning in October, the NRSC had reserved just $10 million in late airtime — while the DSCC had reserved $44 million in ads. The NRSC took out a $15 million line of credit for last-minute spending, but its hope was that outside groups would fill in the rest.

“The disparity between the two committees is unlike anything I’ve seen since I started doing this,” said one longtime GOP official.

McConnell took the lead in warning donors about what was to come. Though he could not directly solicit contributions for the Senate Leadership Fund, run by his former chief of staff, Steven Law, McConnell sent signals, Law said, that the GOP’s leading outside group needed late cash. Last-minute donations gave the group the ability to dump more than $35 million into advertising in crucial states.

All told, the Senate Leadership Fund (SLF) and One Nation raised and spent $165 million on behalf of Senate Republicans. Of that, the SLF spent almost $38 million on television spots in just the last 14 days of the race.

On the Democratic side, Senate Majority PAC was raking in donations at a torrid pace, too. The PAC raised $19 million in just the first three weeks of October, in hopes of taking advantage of Trump’s slide. It spent more than $19 million in the race’s final two weeks.

Priorities USA Action, the main super PAC backing Clinton, publicly refocused some of its money to Senate races, with an eye toward giving Clinton a governing majority. The decisiveness with which they made that move convinced many senior Republicans that Democrats were seeing numbers that showed a big majority within easy reach.

GOP WATCHES PENNSYLVANIA

Republicans were closely watching Pennsylvania, where polls showed Sen. Pat Toomey (R) and Katie McGinty (D) nearly tied.

Toomey had built a campaign rivaled only by Ohio GOP Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanCarper urges Biden to nominate ambassadors amid influx at border Fudge violated the Hatch Act, watchdog finds House conservatives take aim at Schumer-led bipartisan China bill MORE’s for its breadth and sophistication, and he and outside groups began hitting McGinty early in the critical Philadelphia media market. But he hadn’t gained much traction: Of the 23 public polls released since the beginning of August, only three showed either candidate leading outside the margin of error.

Pollsters working for Toomey and the NRSC focused heavily on six counties that ring Philadelphia: Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lehigh and Montgomery. Republicans knew Toomey needed to run about even with McGinty in those collar counties, home to tens of thousands of suburban moderate women who had elected him six years ago, if he were to keep his job. Pollsters were conducting huge surveys of those counties to monitor movement on a near-daily basis.

“This was not a statewide race,” one GOP pollster said. “This was a race of about six counties in southeastern Pennsylvania.” Almost half of the money Republican outside groups put into Pennsylvania ran on the airwaves in the Philadelphia media market.

Toomey’s pitch to those voters centered on his support for legislation tightening gun control restrictions, which he offered along with Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinJill Biden, Jennifer Garner go mask-free on vaccine-promoting West Virginia trip Manchin on infrastructure: 'We're gonna find a bipartisan pathway forward' Senate panel advances Biden's deputy Interior pick MORE (D-W.Va.). He got a boost when a gun control group funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed his campaign.

Around the state, Democrats had budgeted so much to beat Toomey that they were able to run saturation-level advertising even in media markets Toomey would win. Three weeks before Election Day, the party was airing 4,500 gross ratings points — four times what is considered saturation-level — in the Scranton media market. In Philadelphia, a rotation of six different ads critical of Toomey inundated viewers.

Their goal was to simultaneously hold Toomey’s margins outside the major cities in check while weakening him in the suburbs. After Bloomberg’s endorsement, Democrats ran their own advertisements featuring Toomey bragging about his “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, aimed squarely at those same suburban voters. What could have been Toomey’s potent inroad to moderate voters, Democrats believed, was instead fought to a draw.

TRUMP HURTS RUBIO

Trump’s tumble meant not even Florida was safe, even after Democrats canceled their planned ad blitz.

The SLF jumped back into the state with a late ad buy, while GOP Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioStudy: Early unemployment cutoff would cost 16M people 0B The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Cheney poised to be ousted; Biden to host big meeting Senate votes to repeal OCC 'true lender' rule MORE’s campaign team told fellow Republicans it was frustrated that its messages against Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy just weren’t sticking. Voters asked what they had heard about the race couldn’t recall the shots Rubio’s team was paying to air.

To some consultants, it underscored the fact that fewer voters than ever are watching live television.

“You have to sort of continually question the capacity for television advertising to move numbers the way it has in the past,” one party strategist said. “It takes a lot more to break through.”

Long lines at early-voting locations in Hispanic neighborhoods scared some Republicans, too. By the end of the in-person early-voting period, registered Democrats had cast 32,000 more ballots than registered Republicans, and Democrats led in swing counties such as Duval.

Democrats watched the tightening numbers in Florida with some concern, albeit for different reasons. While Reid and Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden 'encouraged' by meeting with congressional leaders on infrastructure Republicans welcome the chance to work with Democrats on a bipartisan infrastructure bill Cheney sideshow distracts from important battle over Democrats' partisan voting bill MORE (D-N.Y.) had decided their best play for the majority ran through Missouri, North Carolina and Indiana, they knew they would be second-guessed if Rubio beat Murphy by a small margin. Murphy’s fate now rested entirely in the hands of Clinton’s turnout operation.

One bright spot for the GOP through October was in Indiana, where former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh’s lead continued to slip away. Bayh had arrested his slide in late September with spots aimed critically at Rep. Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungSenate Democrats ramp up push to limit Biden's war powers US Olympic Committee urges Congress not to boycott Games in China Senate panel approves bill that would invest billions in tech MORE (R), but outside Republican groups redoubled their efforts to cast the former senator as an insider.

Tellingly, Bayh’s positive spots focused on his time as governor, rather than his time in the Senate.

Some Republicans couldn’t help but draw the parallel between a struggling Bayh and Blunt’s problems in Missouri: Two insiders, running in an outsider year, were following a similar trajectory.

“Roy’s probably calling Evan right now, asking if his old firm is hiring,” one Republican wag joked to another.

Another highlight was in Wisconsin, where Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonImmigration experts say GOP senators questioned DHS secretary with misleading chart GOP split on counteroffer to Biden's spending Rand Paul clashes with Fauci over coronavirus origins MORE (R) was showing signs of life in his rematch against former Sen. Russ Feingold (D). While outside groups had given up on Johnson, the campaign itself had pursued a different strategy. Johnson’s campaign parted ways with its initial team of consultants and spent September running positive spots, a notably different tone from the bitter presidential campaign running around them.

One ad featured Johnson at a white board, casting himself as the cheerful outsider amid a gang of politicians. Another featured a family from Green Bay, whose daughter Johnson had helped bring home from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“We needed to make clear who Ron was,” one Johnson insider said. “We established [Feingold] as the equivalent of politics: more of the same, 34 years. And at the end of the day, the undercurrent of this election was outsider.”

As recently as August, the respected Marquette Law School poll showed Feingold leading by double digits; Marquette’s final survey showed Feingold leading by only a single point, 45 percent to 44 percent.

COMEY HURTS DEMS

As Republicans struggled to distance themselves from Trump, Democrats were confronting their own ties to Clinton, whose unfavorable ratings remained high.

When FBI Director James Comey wrote to Congress informing lawmakers the bureau would take a second look at emails related to Clinton’s use of a private server while secretary of State, Democratic momentum came to a halt. Internal Democratic National Committee polling showed Clinton slipping behind Trump and Bayh’s lead over Young evaporating.

In other states, the impact of Comey’s letter may not have made much of a dent in Democratic numbers. But with so many races on a razor’s edge so close to an election, Democrats admitted that even a slight breeze could become an insurmountable headwind.

“It didn’t have a huge impact, but it didn’t need to, because so many of the races were so close,” a senior Senate Democratic aide said.

In Missouri, where polls showed Blunt suffering among Republicans and seniors, outside groups made the case that Secretary of State Jason Kander (D) would be a rubber stamp for Clinton.

“It’s surprising how many ways Jason Kander is just like Hillary Clinton,” a late SLF ad said. “One Hillary in Washington would be bad enough. Reject Jason Kander.”

Republicans had begun the year trying to localize races across the country. Blunt’s future depended on their ability to nationalize a race and to tie the fresh-faced Kander to the unpopular Clinton. 

A GOOD GOP NIGHT

McConnell spent Election Day in the newly redecorated basement of the NRSC with his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, NRSC Executive Director Ward Baker, Josh Holmes and Sens. John CornynJohn CornynGOP split on counteroffer to Biden's spending Police reform talks hit familiar stumbling block CNN asks Carol Baskin to comment on loose Texas tiger MORE (R-Texas) and Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerBiden says he and GOP both 'sincere about' seeking infrastructure compromise The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden expresses optimism on bipartisanship; Cheney ousted Hillicon Valley: Global cybersecurity leaders say they feel unprepared for attack | Senate Commerce Committee advances Biden's FTC nominee Lina Khan | Senate panel approves bill that would invest billions in tech MORE (R-Miss.). Former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour stopped by.

Their first hint that the evening would go well came when The Associated Press called Indiana for Young. Soon, Florida fell off the map as Rubio won his race. When Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrGOP senator urges Biden to withdraw support for COVID vaccine patent waiver Utah county GOP censures Romney over Trump impeachment vote Battle lines drawn over Biden's support for vaccine waivers MORE (R) cruised to a surprisingly easy win in North Carolina, a race top GOP strategists had believed was lost, McConnell began to believe his majority would be safe.

When Johnson won in Wisconsin, the high-fives started. An NRSC data analyst, brought into the room to debrief the senators, said Pennsylvania looked good, too, based on the counties yet to report. Only Ayotte and Sen. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkDuckworth announces reelection bid Brave new world: Why we need a Senate Human Rights Commission  Senate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls MORE (R-Ill.) would ultimately lose.

Holmes asked the analyst what was happening in the presidential race — the Republicans in the NRSC’s basement had been so focused on Senate races they lost track of the fight for the White House. The analyst told them Trump would win Pennsylvania, and the presidency.

McConnell smiled. “Sounds to me like we’re making America great again,” he said.