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The untold stories of the 2016 battle for the Senate

The untold stories of the 2016 battle for the Senate
© Greg Nash

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

On a cold day last winter, two retired FBI agents arrived in Wichita, Kan., on a research mission.

The team, according to senior Republican strategists in Washington and Kansas, had been dispatched by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) to look into the background of Rep. Mike Pompeo (R), an ambitious conservative with an affinity for the limelight who was considering a primary challenge to Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranBipartisan Senate bill introduced to give gyms B in relief Bottom line Hawley votes against anti-Asian hate crime bill MORE (R).

Republicans had been stung by ultra-conservative candidates who had won primary elections in key states by upending more mainstream alternatives before ultimately losing their general elections.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBipartisanship has become a partisan weapon Washington showing signs of normalcy after year of restrictions Former OMB pick Neera Tanden to serve as senior adviser to Biden MORE (R-Ky.) was intent on squashing those primary challenges and exerting a greater influence over his party — even in a red state like Kansas.

After the 2012 elections, McConnell vowed to “crush” Tea Party challenges in the 2014 cycle. He followed through on that promise, and the GOP subsequently captured control of the Senate. In order to retain the upper chamber, Republicans needed to keep to the same game plan.

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To squelch Pompeo’s interest in a costly and potentially nasty Republican primary, McConnell and his chief political lieutenant, NRSC Executive Director Ward Baker, set out to let the congressman know just what awaited him if he decided to run.

They orchestrated a classic good cop-bad cop routine: Political operatives working for conservative mega-donors Charles and David Koch, with whom Pompeo is close, urged the GOP legislator to stay in the House. Other allies from Washington to Wichita echoed that message.

Baker played the bad cop. A poll paid for by the NRSC showed Moran crushing Pompeo in a primary. Baker convinced two conservative groups that Pompeo might have turned to for money to make it clear the spigots were closed. And the retired FBI agents didn’t bother to cover their tracks; it would help the NRSC’s cause if Pompeo knew the campaign arm was preparing a thick binder of opposition research.

On April 25, Pompeo took himself out of the race, citing the lack of time to mount a strong challenge. He took thinly veiled shots at “legacy Republican leaders” who had discouraged him from running.

The effort to keep Pompeo on the sidelines in Kansas was just one move in a complicated match between McConnell and his Democratic counterpart, incoming Minority Leader 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 (N.Y.), as they made parallel efforts to claim control of the Senate in the 115th Congress.

When polls closed on Nov. 8, Democrats picked up two Republican-held Senate seats — short of the five they needed to win outright control of the chamber.

This is the story of how each party achieved those outcomes, the story of the battle for control of the Senate as it played across a national chessboard from New Hampshire to Nevada to North Carolina, based on interviews with more than two dozen senior strategists, pollsters, donors and Senate and campaign officials on both sides of the aisle. 

 

Jitters on both sides

After boom-or-bust election cycles in recent years, both parties began the two-year stretch with jitters. They focused on seven states held by Republican senators that President Obama won twice — Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Illinois — along with a few second-tier Republican-held states, such as Missouri, North Carolina and Arizona, and two Democratic-held states, Nevada and Colorado.

And party leaders watched — and feared — the impact their respective party’s presidential nominees would have down the ballot. Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFranklin Graham says Trump comeback would 'be a very tough thing to do' Man suspected in wife's disappearance accused of casting her ballot for Trump Stefanik: Cheney is 'looking backwards' MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCongress won't end the wars, so states must Democrats say it's up to GOP to stop Trump 2024 Hillary Clinton to speak at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders summit MORE were the two least popular presidential nominees ever chosen, a factor that would weigh on candidates running for Senate seats across the nation.

Republicans prepared for a difficult year, one in which they would find few opportunities to expand the map, while Democrats targeted their incumbents.

“We realized we were going to have a very large battlefield,” said Steven Law, a former McConnell aide who heads the American Crossroads family of outside organizations. “We knew we would be playing defense this cycle.”

From the beginning, Baker, the hard-charging and brashly blunt retired Marine who ran the NRSC, pushed his candidates to insulate themselves from a national tide. After studying Senate races from 2012 and 2014, Baker and his team came to two conclusions: First, that candidates with strong favorable and job approval numbers tended to survive waves, and second, that the party’s money would be best spent to influence races early.

“We had a philosophy that said you’ve got to get your favorable rating up to 50 percent, get your job approval rating as close to 50 percent as possible, and then keep it there all the way through the election,” said one Republican pollster intimately involved in early planning.

McConnell hatched his own plan to give incumbents ammunition for their reelection bids. McConnell gave members votes on issues they could sell back home: Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanBipartisanship has become a partisan weapon Carper urges Biden to nominate ambassadors amid influx at border Fudge violated the Hatch Act, watchdog finds MORE (R-Ohio) sponsored a measure to tackle the growing opioid crisis, an issue also very important to Sens. 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.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). Toomey got a vote on a bill to limit sanctuary cities. Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntMissouri Republicans move to block Greitens in key Senate race On 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 MORE (R-Mo.) spearheaded legislation helping military families.

 

Prepping for rough waters

McConnell and Baker told GOP senators to take their reelection bids seriously. When Sen. John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanSenate GOP opens door to earmarks Arkansas governor quietly bucking GOP's dive into culture wars Trump allies line up ahead of potentially bruising primaries MORE (R-Ark.) turned in a subpar fundraising performance last year, the NRSC organized a major fundraiser to boost his cash on hand. Republicans sent messages to other members that they needed to begin planning for a tough environment early on.

Some, like Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainWill the real Lee Hamiltons and Olympia Snowes please stand up? Republicans have dumped Reagan for Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Cheney poised to be ousted; Biden to host big meeting MORE (R-Ariz.), took those warnings seriously. Others, like Blunt and Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrRomney: Capitol riot was 'an insurrection against the Constitution' GOP senator urges Biden to withdraw support for COVID vaccine patent waiver Utah county GOP censures Romney over Trump impeachment vote MORE (R-N.C.), dragged their feet, a source of frustration for Republican leaders over the next two years.

Though presidential turnout would favor them, Democrats started the cycle in a dark period. They hadn’t anticipated the depth of their losses in 2014, when Republicans took back the majority. Unexpected defeats of incumbents like Sens. Kay HaganKay Ruthven HaganBiden's gun control push poses danger for midterms The two women who could 'cancel' Trump 10 under-the-radar races to watch in November MORE (N.C.) and Mark UdallMark Emery UdallKennedy apologizes for calling Haaland a 'whack job' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Haaland courts moderates during tense confirmation hearing | GOP's Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change | White House urges passage of House public lands package Udalls: Haaland criticism motivated 'by something other than her record' MORE (Colo.), two members popular among other Democratic senators, cast a pall over the caucus. 

Two-thirds of the remaining 46 conference members had never served in the minority, and relinquishing power hurt. Some of the younger members even considered making a change at the top by ousting their leader, Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidBottom line Biden's first 100 days is stylistic 'antithesis' of Trump The Memo: Washington's fake debate on 'bipartisanship' MORE (Nev.). Reid’s team heard those rumblings and successfully navigated around what could have been an ugly leadership fight.

Tom Lopach, the soft-spoken chief of staff to Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDC statehood bill picks up Senate holdout Democratic fissures start to show after Biden's first 100 days Americans for Prosperity launches campaign targeting six Democrats to oppose ending filibuster MORE (D-Mont.) who took over the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), had to convince his members of the plausibility of the path back to the majority.

Along with those seven states Obama had won twice, strong Democratic recruits in states like Missouri, North Carolina and Kentucky could expand the map — and, if a political wave developed, put more states in play.

“The map was good for us, and the math was good for us,” one senior Democratic strategist said of the beginning of the cycle. “It was always part of our strategy to have the map be as big as possible, as long as possible.”

Both sides saw two states as easy Democratic targets from the beginning: In Illinois, 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) was virtually certain to lose. His improbable victory in 2010 came against a scandal-plagued Democrat in a good year for Republicans, and few believed he could overcome headwinds in such a Democratic state. 

And in Wisconsin, Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonSunday shows - Cheney removal, CDC guidance reverberate Ron Johnson calls cyber attacks an 'existential' threat following Colonial Pipeline shutdown All congressional Democrats say they have been vaccinated: CNN MORE (R) began his rematch far behind former Sen. Russ Feingold (D), whom he had beaten six years earlier. A Marquette Law School poll conducted in April 2015 showed just one-third of Wisconsin voters viewed Johnson favorably, and voters favored Feingold over Johnson by a 54 percent to 38 percent margin.

Even Baker, in private presentations with Republican lobbyists, said he didn’t think Johnson could win, according to donors who sat through NRSC presentations.

No Republican took his own reelection bid more seriously than Ohio’s Portman. He had been tearing up the fundraising circuit for months, and by early 2015, almost all of Portman’s campaign team was in place. Running for reelection in such a big state is difficult to begin with; to mitigate any potential drag from the top of the ticket, Portman set about building an infrastructure that would eventually rival the size of a presidential campaign’s swing state team, going so far as to recruit high school students to volunteer.

Still, Democrats were convinced Portman was vulnerable. Schumer especially focused his recruiting efforts on Ted Strickland, a former governor who was still popular despite his loss in 2010. On Feb. 25, Strickland announced he would challenge Portman, giving Democrats their first top-tier recruit of the cycle.

 

Reid’s big decision

Democrats were playing defense themselves in Nevada, where polls showed Reid’s favorable numbers were dismally weak. In March, Reid called Schumer to tell him he wouldn’t be running again, giving Schumer the head start in the race to replace Reid atop the Democratic caucus. Within hours, Schumer had sewn up the votes, and Sen. Dick DurbinDick Durbin28 Senate Democrats sign statement urging Israel-Hamas ceasefire Senate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Sweeping election reform bill faces Senate buzz saw MORE (Ill.), Schumer’s only potential rival, congratulated the next Democratic leader.

Reid left the caucus with a second strong recruit: In announcing his own retirement, he publicly backed Catherine Cortez Masto, a longtime protégé, as his chosen successor. Republicans held out hope that hugely popular Gov. Brian Sandoval would jump in the race, though he ultimately demurred; Rep. Joe Heck was the party’s second choice, but a strong candidate in his own right.

After becoming Democratic leader-in-waiting, Schumer threw himself into the fight for control of the Senate with renewed vigor. Schumer had run the DSCC in the 2006 and 2008 cycles, and even after leaving he maintained a constant presence at the committee. But now, he redoubled his involvement.

“It has always been clear to him that being majority leader is much preferable to being minority leader,” a Democratic Senate chief of staff said.

Through spring and summer 2015, Schumer, Reid and Tester sought out the strongest candidates they could find. Schumer and his daughter had dinner with Feingold and his wife, in hopes of convincing Feingold to make a comeback. Democratic leaders enlisted their own colleagues in the recruitment drives when necessary: A handful of Democratic senators called Hagan to urge her to mount a comeback attempt. 

Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayBiden's pre-K plan is a bipartisan opportunity to serve the nation's children Schumer 'exploring' passing immigration unilaterally if talks unravel Senate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap MORE (D-Wash.) called Katie McGinty, a former Clinton administration official in Pennsylvania who now served as Gov. Tom Wolf’s chief of staff, to ask her to run against Toomey. Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillMissouri Republicans move to block Greitens in key Senate race Democratic Kansas City, Mo., mayor eyes Senate run Demings asked about Senate run after sparring with Jordan on police funding MORE (D-Mo.) facilitated meetings between the DSCC and Jason Kander, Missouri’s secretary of state and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.

Both parties faced disappointments in the recruiting process. Hagan, who had lost a brutal campaign in 2014, decided against running again. In Colorado, one of a small handful of races where Republicans hoped to put Democrats on defense, prosecutor George Brauchler was a week away from entering the race against Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetNew York, New Jersey, California face long odds in scrapping SALT  Overnight Defense: Former Pentagon chief to testify about Capitol riot Wednesday | Senate Intelligence chairman wants Biden to review US Space Command move Senate Intelligence chairman wants Biden to review US Space Command move MORE (D) before he told top Republicans he wouldn’t run.

Some Democrats bemoaned Hagan’s exit in a tough state where the party faced a weak bench. But EMILY’s List, the group that backs pro-abortion rights Democratic women, had a replacement in mind: Deborah Ross, a 53-year-old former member of the state legislature. Ross, who impressed Democrats with her diligent work introducing herself to senators and party donors, formally entered the race in October 2015.

 

Year of the outsider

Even beyond the traditional battleground states, Republicans saw worrisome signs that some of their members could face trouble. In October, more than a year before Election Day, One Nation, an outside group tied to the Crossroads network, began running advertisements touting Blunt’s work on behalf of military families. Trump was surging among Republican voters sick of the political establishment, and some worried that Blunt — a longtime Washington insider with a family full of lobbyists — could be vulnerable in a climate that favored outsiders.

“You could see the vulnerability a long way away,” said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist with close ties to McConnell.

Together, One Nation and the Senate Leadership Fund, another Crossroads entity, had budgeted $4 million to protect Blunt, who defied some pundits’ predictions and kept his seat.

In fall 2015, Democrats scored another recruiting win when Gov. Maggie Hassan said she would challenge Ayotte in New Hampshire. Republicans in Hassan’s legislature had held up the state budget for weeks, delaying Hassan’s entry into the race. But both candidates entered the contest with strong favorable ratings and healthy job-approval numbers, setting up what would become one of the year’s most expensive contests and one of the Democratic bright spots on Election Day.

 

Supreme Court clash

A final race came into play in early 2016, when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away unexpectedly at a ranch in Texas. Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyLawmakers bicker over how to go after tax cheats On The Money: Biden says workers can't turn down job and get benefits | Treasury launches state and local aid | Businesses jump into vax push Grassley criticizes Biden's proposal to provide IRS with B MORE (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, declined to hold hearings on Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia.

Grassley’s refusal to advance Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination served as a galvanizing moment for some Democrats in the Senate. Outraged by what they saw as grossly political obstructionism, Democrats turned their attention to an aptly named rival to highlight what they saw as the Republican’s weakness: Patty Judge, the former lieutenant governor. Judge would spend virtually her entire campaign reminding voters that Grassley was holding open a seat on the Supreme Court. Grassley ended up winning by 25 points.

 

The right eyes McCain’s seat

McCain had faced a primary contest in 2010, and he expected another. His favorable ratings were low in internal surveys, driven largely by weak numbers among Republicans.

State Sen. Kelli Ward, an archconservative from Lake Havasu, quit her legislative seat to mount a bid against the 2008 Republican presidential nominee.

The GOP establishment machine attacked Ward relentlessly, and McCain easily won his primary.

In Alabama, Sen. Richard Shelby (R) presented a prime target for a conservative challenger. Shelby, who had been in office for 30 years, had built a legacy of bringing appropriations projects back to his state. If Trump’s drain-the-swamp message would impact any Senate Republicans, someone like Shelby would be vulnerable.

But Shelby had also built a massive, $18 million campaign war chest unrivaled by any of his fellow senators. Beginning in December, he used that stockpile to blast his main rival, Jonathan McConnell, with negative advertising. Shelby won his March primary with 65 percent of the vote, on the same day Trump captured Alabama’s primary with 43 percent.

Conservatives ultimately took a pass on challenging Boozman in Arkansas, whose campaign fund was just a fraction of the size of Shelby’s.

 

Primary issues on the left

Democrats faced their own primary headaches.

In Pennsylvania, former Rep. Joe Sestak wanted a second shot at Toomey, to whom he had lost by just 2 points in 2010. But Sestak and Schumer had a contentious history; Sestak had run an unorthodox campaign in 2010, one that Democrats believed cost him a winnable race, and he showed no interest or inclination toward heeding the DSCC’s advice. 

“We were going to need a campaign that would work with us and that we could work with,” a top Democratic Senate strategist said later. The DSCC was unwilling to commit the tens of millions required to beat Toomey if their nominee wouldn’t run a top-notch campaign.

Most Democrats in Washington mobilized behind McGinty. EMILY’s List and union groups, along with the DSCC, helped McGinty win the Democratic primary by an impressive 10 percentage points, but at the cost of millions of dollars.

Some Democrats watched incredulously as EMILY’s List spent millions on behalf of another candidate, Rep. Donna Edwards, in Maryland’s primary. The state would almost certainly elect whichever Democrat came out of the primary, they believed, so why waste limited resources on Edwards over Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who had an equally liberal voting record and close ties to Democratic leaders? 

Van Hollen won his primary too, and EMILY’s List quietly let it be known that the money they had spent on Edwards had almost entirely come from one donor — investment manager Donald Sussman — who earmarked his donation for Edwards.

 

The battlefield takes shape

By April 2016, the parties broadly agreed on the shape of the battlefield over which they would fight in November: Republicans had little chance of defending Kirk and Johnson, both parties believed.

Democrats would target the five other states Obama had won where Republicans held Senate seats: Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Florida and Iowa. The party had slim, but real, shots at vulnerable GOP incumbents in Missouri and North Carolina. And Republicans had a strong chance to win back Reid’s seat in Nevada.

But neither McConnell nor Schumer was completely content with their candidates — and both men had an ace up their sleeves they hoped would shake up the battle for control.

Tomorrow, Part 2: The Donald Trump effect