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2016’s battle for the Senate: A shifting map
This is the second 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.
By the spring of 2016, Republicans intent on protecting their slim majority in the U.S. Senate were despondent about Florida.
A clown car full of candidates had jumped into the race to replace Sen. Marco Rubio (R), while the Democratic establishment had united behind Rep. Patrick Murphy (D), a young and impressive centrist with a wealthy father willing to fund a super PAC on his behalf.
All signs pointed to a Democratic pickup in a state with a late primary.
But as Rubio's presidential campaign fell apart, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sensed an opportunity to change the trajectory of the Senate race.
On the presidential campaign trail, Rubio had trashed Washington. But the Rubio who returned to the Senate was not that Rubio. He threw himself into legislating with new vigor, especially as he sought funding to fight the outbreak of the Zika virus, which hit his state hard. McConnell noticed his young colleague on the floor more often, and he suspected all the talk about hating the Senate had been a facade for Republican primary voters.
McConnell asked Rubio to reconsider his decision not to seek reelection. When Rubio didn't show up for one of the Senate Republican Conference's weekly lunches, McConnell told his fellow senators to seek him out and urge him to run again. Ward Baker, the executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), organized a parade of phone calls from friends and supporters back in Florida pushing Rubio to get back in the race.
By Memorial Day, Rubio had all but decided to enter the field. He made it official in June, citing the devastating mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub.
"That was about as good a campaign as we've run in a long time," said Josh Holmes, one of McConnell's top political lieutenants.
Democrats were shocked by Rubio's reversal. They had been confident in Murphy's ability to beat the bruised and bloodied winner of an ugly GOP primary. Now, they had to face a candidate many Democrats privately believed would have been the GOP's strongest presidential nominee.
"Democrats have a Marco Rubio complex. I think we are weak-kneed for Marco Rubio," one party strategist said. "Democrats look at Marco Rubio and see our worst fears realized.
Rubio's entry ricocheted around Washington, fundamentally changing the fight for the Senate. Democrats who had initially budgeted tens of millions of dollars for Florida now began to consider other states where that money might be better spent.
This is the story of the shifting Senate map, based on interviews with more than two dozen operatives, strategists, pollsters and donors on both sides of the aisle.
Through the summer of 2016, Democrats and Republicans who once thought the path to a Senate majority ran through states like Ohio and Florida now began looking elsewhere, to states where they could launch a surprise attack - or build impregnable beachheads.
As McConnell wooed Rubio, Senate Democratic Leader-in-waiting Charles Schumer (N.Y.) was working on his own surprise, in Indiana.
National Republicans had worried they would not be able to hold Sen. Dan Coats's (R) seat if Rep. Marlin Stutzman, a Freedom Caucus conservative, won the GOP primary. The NRSC dispatched John Ashbrook, another in McConnell's well-stocked stable of bright, young operatives, to help boost Rep. Todd Young (R), a relatively generic Republican, in the primary's final weeks.
When Young won the primary, and the right to face former Rep. Baron Hill in November, most Republicans believed the race was already in the bag. Hill had little interest, and little ability, to mount a serious campaign. His fundraising had been anemic, at best, and few voters knew his name.
Schumer had been talking to his old friend Evan Bayh, who had left the Senate six years earlier. Bayh, a Democrat and former two-term governor and two-term senator, had the name identification and good will from Indiana voters that Hill lacked. More important, he had $10 million left in his campaign account - and a desire to return to his old job.
Some close to Bayh believed his interest in mounting a comeback was an opportunity to avenge his father's loss in 1980 to a young Republican named Dan Quayle. "That always weighed heavily on Evan, and he wanted to go out differently," one confidant said.
In early July, Bayh announced he would get in the race, and Hill would drop out. Hill was all too happy to end his long-shot campaign. Internal polls on both sides showed Bayh leading the relatively unknown Young by double digits.
DEM TROUBLE IN OHIO
As the summer began, Democrats were seeing increasingly ominous signs that former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland's (D) campaign was floundering. Privately, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) tried to convince Strickland to shake up his campaign team.
Sen. Rob Portman's (R) campaign had focused on the number of jobs Ohio lost during Strickland's tenure in office, a term that overlapped with the 2008 recession. Those attacks sent Strickland's favorable ratings plunging 10 points between March and June, and his unfavorable ratings soared even more than that. Before Labor Day, Republicans had spent an incredible $35 million making the case against Strickland.
Before the onslaught, Strickland led six straight Quinnipiac University polls, giving Democrats hope that Portman was vulnerable. But as Strickland's image rating turned upside down, Portman took the lead in an early July survey, and he never relinquished the advantage. Polling conducted for Priorities USA Action, the super PAC backing Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, showed Portman pulling ahead, too.
Ohio had been the single largest line item in the DSCC's budget, and the Senate Majority PAC's budget. As July crept toward August, both groups began contemplating abandoning their star recruit and shifting their focus elsewhere. By late August, party strategists had all but concluded that Strickland could not win, and they began cutting back their advertising buys, a sure sign of a party in retreat.
Portman's advantage: "The flip side of being a longtime D.C. insider is a mountain of money," a top Democratic strategist lamented.
A LONG SEPTEMBER
When the two parties ended their national conventions, Republicans in Cleveland and Democrats in Philadelphia, Democrats believed they were in a strong position to build a significant Senate majority.
The GOP convention had been bizarre, and Trump's decision to attack the family of a fallen American soldier in the weeks afterward sent the first Republican senators scrambling for cover. First Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), then Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), then Rubio began parroting the same line: The presidential race presented voters with two bad choices, and they would serve as independent checks on either.
McCain's early work defining his Republican primary opponent as a wacko paid off; he skated to an easy primary win in August. Rubio, who faced a wealthy real estate developer in his primary, won easily, too, despite millions spent hammering Rubio as out of touch and disinterested in his state.
Republicans had not given up on Indiana, where they spent July and August attacking Bayh repeatedly on his post-Senate career as a Washington lobbyist.
Early in the cycle, Baker told consultants vying for independent expenditure contracts that the NRSC would spend its money early, in August and September, when it could define races, rather than holding fire until late, when the airwaves would be crowded. Some would later question that decision, as the DSCC vastly outspent the NRSC in late September and October, but by early September, Republican spending had begun eroding Bayh's numbers.
Internal Republican polling data showed that Hoosier voters believed Bayh had abandoned them to move to Washington, and they knew about his lobbying ties.
Young had little money to build the sort of narrative arc that a typical Senate campaign needed, so Holmes advised him to spend his time driving home a single point: Bayh left us to lobby for them. That was virtually the only thing that came out of Young's mouth for the rest of the campaign.
Bayh began to look like a candidate whose time had passed, like Tommy Thompson or George Allen before him. He had been a great candidate when he ran in 1998 and 2004; by 2016, he lamented to the Indianapolis Star, politics had changed - and, he may have implied, left him behind.
Bayh's stumbles were the beginning of what became a very long September for Democrats. When Clinton took ill at an event remembering the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, public polls showed Trump clawing back some of the support he had lost in August. Some polling showed Senate Democratic candidates, especially those with lower public profiles, sinking along with Clinton.
At the same time, Democrats were struggling to figure out how to tie Republican candidates to their party's presidential nominee, Trump, a man whose unfavorable ratings surpassed even Clinton's. Four years earlier, Democrats had saddled Republican candidates with Mitt Romney's economic plans. Now, they had a presidential nominee who didn't seem to stand for any coherent policy, aside from a border wall.
"You can't attack [Trump's] plans because he has no plans," said Matt Canter, a Democratic strategist who polled for Senate Democrats. Polling data did little to suggest that voters associated Republicans such as Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.) or Portman or Ayotte with Trump.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) thought otherwise. Kelly Ward, the DCCC's executive director, had planned to nationalize House races as early as possible by trying to turn every Republican into a Trump clone. Some Senate Democrats saw that strategy as a mistake - a conclusion they would soon rethink.
RACE TURNS TO MISSOURI, NORTH CAROLINA
In late August, Rubio easily beat his lone remaining Republican opponent. An initial round of post-Labor Day polling convinced Democrats their fears about Rubio had been well founded. The party had planned to dump as much as $40 million into Florida on Murphy's behalf, and Democrats worried that anything other than an all-in commitment would be wasted cash. Just days after they began cutting ads in Ohio, they canceled their first Florida buys.
"When the Democrats walked away, that sealed [Murphy's] fate," said Carl Forti, the chief political strategist at the Senate Leadership Fund. Still, Republicans were not entirely convinced that Rubio's reelection was a lock, and their own polling kept them focused on the race even after Democrats pulled their advertising.
With Ohio and Florida all but lost, Democrats needed to rethink their path to a 50- or 51-seat majority. Illinois and Wisconsin still looked like easy wins, and Bayh was holding on to his slim lead. Pennsylvania and New Hampshire were winnable but no sure thing.
Second-tier targets like Arizona and Iowa were falling off the map as Republican incumbents shored up their weaknesses. Democrats conducted a poll in hopes of showing former Sen. Mark Begich (D) that he could make a comeback as a write-in candidate in Alaska, but Begich decided against what would have been an almost unprecedented long shot.
Instead, two new GOP seats were coming into play: Roy Blunt's in Missouri, and Richard Burr's in North Carolina. Democrats made the conscious decision to use money initially earmarked for Florida to try to put two new seats in play and to defend Bayh in Indiana. It was three seats for the price of one, they hoped.
"If you look at the cost to run 1,000 points of ads in Missouri, North Carolina and Indiana, it is combined cheaper than it is in Florida," said one Senate Democratic aide involved in the discussion. "The cost factor made that a pretty easy no-brainer. It is the DSCC's job to win the maximum number of Senate seats. It is not the DSCC's job to worry about [Rubio running for president in] 2020."
The alternate path to a majority made Burr an especially inviting target. He had won election in 2004 and 2010, both good years for the GOP nationally, and some in Washington thought he needed to be convinced to take the threat to his seat seriously. Had former Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) run, Burr would have understood the challenge early.
But he consistently underestimated Deborah Ross, who quietly impressed Democrats with her fundraising ability. His campaign waited months to attack Ross's past work for the ACLU, an obvious way to paint her as an out-of-touch liberal.
Burr spent a week in July and several weekends in August, just months before Election Day, at his family's vacation home in Michigan, according to four Republican strategists familiar with his race. He bragged at times about being unreachable to his own staff. Several Republicans said they were reminded of Elizabeth Dole, who lost her seat in the Democratic wave of 2008 after failing to recognize the political peril Hagan represented.
"Fear is the single greatest human motivator, and I don't think he got afraid until it was too late," one Republican pollster said.
In Missouri, Secretary of State Jason Kander (D) had done his own work softening up Blunt. Democrats had planned to run the same type of race against Blunt as they had in 2010, casting him as a Washington insider. Kander began rolling out that case in August, with an advertisement highlighting Blunt's family members who were registered lobbyists.
"There is no question: Missouri needs a new senator," the narrator said.
A month later, on Sept. 15, Kander released his second major television spot, one that became a viral sensation. The ad showed Kander, an Afghanistan veteran, assembling an automatic rifle while blindfolded. The ad linking Blunt to lobbyists served to undermine Blunt among Republican-leaning voters who wanted a change. The ad showing Kander's proficiency with firearms tried to make the sale that he was an acceptable alternative.
Blunt's team asked the NRSC to help beat back Kander's criticism. Privately, some at the NRSC wondered just how they were supposed to push back against claims about ties to lobbyists that were irrefutably true.
Anecdotally, Republicans in Washington began hearing disturbing reports that Blunt was in real trouble. Senate staffers would spend afternoons and evenings in the basement of the NRSC, making calls on behalf of candidates. Those calling Missouri voters reported back to their bosses that voters were raising concerns about Blunt's lobbying ties, a sign that Kander's attacks were sinking in.
"In this environment, Kander was the exact right kind of challenger to have versus Blunt," one Republican Senate chief of staff said.
Privately, McConnell told aides and allies that he worried about Kander. If they didn't beat him now, he told his friends, Kander would be a long-term headache for the GOP - and a potential member of Senate Democratic leadership. Baker called Kander the best Democratic recruit of the cycle.
As September came to a close, the two parties faced a map significantly different from the assumptions each side had set out to donors and members in early 2015. Ohio and Florida were virtually off the table. So were longer shots like Arizona and Iowa. Indiana was back in play, and Burr and Blunt looked vulnerable.
Both sides had worked to prosecute races on a hyper-local level. Democrats spent their time attacking Ayotte and Toomey on their own records, rather than tying them to Trump. Republicans cast their candidates as sheriffs primarily concerned with local issues. Neither side wanted to be associated with its own presidential candidate.
But in a presidential year, some level of association with the top of the ticket was inevitable. As summer faded into fall, both sides looked ahead with angst at the presidential debates to come.
--This report was updated at 10:14 a.m.