The irony of midterm elections is that sometimes the smartest, best-organized party committees fall victim to the most devastating waves. That was true in 2006, when the National Republican Congressional Committee made a heroic but unsuccessful effort to defend the party’s majority under horrific conditions, and it is equally true of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this year.
Under the leadership of Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the committee chairman; Executive Director Jon Vogel, a seasoned and talented tactician; and whip-smart Jen Crider, the communications director, the DCCC spent all cycle unglamorously stacking sandbags in the face of hurricane-force winds. Their diligence and discipline prevented even worse Democratic losses. Our forecasts had to make their lives miserable, yet they were always professional and generous with their time. Early on, DCCC officials tried to push their more lethargic members; many who did not heed their storm warning perished. They worked around the clock to save other members who simply would not have escaped otherwise. Political waves aren’t terribly forgiving.
Neither Senate campaign committee started in an enviable position.
Credit should be given to Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas and his National Republican Congressional Committee for adopting a bullish approach to the midterms early, and to a consortium of deep-pocketed GOP outside groups, including Steven Law’s American Crossroads, the American Future Fund, and the 60 Plus Association, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. At a time when few people gave the Republicans a shot at retaking the House majority, both Sessions and Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California defined the difference between success and failure as 218 seats. There were times when we had doubts about their strategy, but the proof is in the pudding as the GOP gained the largest number of seats by either party since 1948 and the largest in a midterm since 1938. In McCarthy’s case, he put Republican challengers on the playing field in districts that had never seen legitimate GOP House candidates before, and more than a few of them won.
NRCC Political Director Brian Walsh and Communications Director Ken Spain were always laser-focused on a majority and matched the killer instinct of Democrat Rahm Emanuel and his lieutenants circa 2006. In the final month of the campaign, the NRCC’s independent-expenditure chief, Mike Shields, efficiently targeted limited committee resources across the broadest array of competitive seats since 1994. The NRCC’s early spending allotments were a wink and a nod to behind-
the-scenes whiz Carl Forti, who played orchestra conductor for the Republican-allied outside groups and plugged the NRCC’s spending holes.
Neither Senate campaign committee started the cycle in a particularly enviable position. Coming off two cycle elections that netted 14 seats and broke committee fundraising records, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee suffered from overexposure, weary donors, and high expectations that it could pull off a three-peat, even in a midterm election. The National Republican Senatorial Committee was coming off of two unsuccessful cycles that left demoralized donors unwilling to open their checkbooks for another losing effort. The NRSC was also hit with a spate of early retirements, which ultimately proved to be a blessing in disguise. Both parties endured their share of recruiting successes and failures.
As the political environment turned sour for Democrats, the DSCC made the best of a bad situation, showing the same aggressiveness it displayed in 2006 and 2008. Executive Director J.B. Poersch and Political Director Martha McKenna, both committee veterans, doggedly pursued a strategy of painting Republican candidates as extremists. They also recognized and leveraged the opportunity that the tea party presented them. And they kept the heat on potentially vulnerable GOP incumbents in hopes of creating a sleeper race or two, although that proved impossible in the current environment. Communications Director Eric Schultz did a masterful job of cheerleading for tea party candidates in primaries, knowing that their nomination would only help the Democrats.
To the winner goes the spoils, and the NRSC worked hard for every one of the six seats that Republicans netted and the open seats they kept. Executive Director Rob Jesmer, Political Director-turned-independent-expenditure Director Randy Bumps, and Political Director Chris LaCivita successfully walked a tightrope between the tea party and the rest of the GOP, publicly embracing tea party nominees but making tough decisions about who got assistance. They didn’t chase lost causes.
They stayed out of some primaries and got involved in others, and although this has produced some intraparty finger-pointing, the NRSC did what it is supposed to do: back candidates who can win general elections. Senate Republicans give Chairman John Cornyn of Texas high praise for making individual senators appreciate what was at stake and getting them to participate in the effort, a more difficult task than it should have been in the Republican Conference.
He also gets high marks for convincing donors that gaining seats was more than possible. Communications Director Brian Walsh and Press Secretary Amber Marchand gave as good as they got from their DSCC counterparts. They consistently reminded the media that this election was about President Obama and the Democratic Senate leadership, but they never lost sight of the need to keep GOP candidates at the center of the narrative.
This article appears in the November 13, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.