Guy Cecil’s partner stopped by his office at the Senate Democrats’ campaign headquarters on Election Day to drop off blue Jell-O molded into the shape of the United States. State lines were etched into the jiggly mass, and everywhere a competitive Democrat was on the ballot, a thin toothpick was stuck with a thumbnail-sized photo of the candidate atop it. The dessert—the entire country—was deep blue to signify a coming Democratic sweep.
It turned out that Cecil’s partner wasn’t quite right. The Democrats didn’t capture every single competitive Senate race. But they came remarkably close in a tour de force performance that saw Democrats gain ground and wind up with 55 seats in a cycle where they were once thought to be in danger of losing their majority. As executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Cecil was the chief mastermind behind his party’s success.
“His biggest strength is, he knows how to win a race,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who was among the vulnerable incumbents reelected. “He’s proved it time and time and time and time again.”
Aided by $145 million in spending by the DSCC, Democrats won tough races this year in the presidential red territories of Indiana, Missouri, Montana, and North Dakota, while picking off a popular GOP incumbent in Massachusetts. “He did a really masterful job of juggling … that many different Senate campaigns, that many different egos, that many hands out,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who also won.
Cecil, 38, has been around campaigns for more than a decade. The self-effacing operative has worked Senate races in the South (from victorious Mark Pryor in Arkansas to Erskine Bowles, who fell short, in North Carolina); the West (he was chief of staff to Sen. Michael Bennet during his come-from-behind 2010 Colorado campaign); and nationally as the DSCC’s political director in 2006 when the party seized its majority. In between, he was the national political and field director for then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential run.
“I don’t think there’s anybody better,” Bennet said. During the last month of his 2010 bid, Bennet said, Cecil actually moved into his basement to save money and expedite decision-making. Bennet had three kids under the age of 11 at the time. “Nothing says commitment like that,” he laughed. “My girls still refer to the guest room as Guy Cecil’s room.”
Cecil’s reward was a promotion to the DSCC helm in 2012—to defend all the seats he helped to win six years earlier. Democrats had to protect 23 seats; Republicans only 10. Despite that, “we decided from the beginning that we had to play offense,” he said.
That meant competing in tough states such as Indiana, where Democrats hadn’t mustered even 33 percent of the vote against GOP Sen. Richard Lugar since 1982. But Cecil had a theory: He believed that an increasingly conservative Republican Party might not renominate Lugar. And he believed that Lugar’s leading GOP foe, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, would make for an untenable general-election candidate.
First, though, Democrats needed a candidate of their own—and more than just a warm body. They pitched Rep. Joe Donnelly, a moderate Democrat who had barely survived the GOP wave of 2010. “We made a pretty compelling case that he could win,” Cecil said. Donnelly jumped in. Now, he is senator-elect because Mourdock unseated Lugar and then stumbled badly in the general election, just as Cecil predicted.
The untold story of the collapse of Mourdock—and Rep. Todd Akin in Missouri—is that Cecil and Democrats laid the groundwork to capitalize on, if not create, those opportunities. It should not be forgotten that McCaskill and the DSCC worked to influence the GOP primary by singling out their weakest potential opponent, pseudo-attacking Akin in not-so-negative ads that called him out as a “true conservative” and touted his prominent GOP backers. “If there was ever a time for a posse to come over the hill and help, it was then,” McCaskill said.
One of the DSCC’s key jobs is candidate recruitment. In Arizona, Cecil estimated he had more than 100 conversations spanning seven months to get Richard Carmona, a Latino surgeon general under President George W. Bush, to enter that race. It was a coup (sealed by a phone call from President Obama), even though Carmona lost; he was the only candidate who could have put the seat in play and diverted millions of dollars in GOP resources.
When candidates’ spouses were reticent about Senate runs, Cecil said he sometimes turned to Connie Schultz, the columnist wife of Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, as his “secret weapon” to allay their fears.
In Virginia, when Democratic Sen. Jim Webb announced he would retire at the end of this Congress—a major blow for the party—Cecil was on the phone with Tim Kaine, a former governor who was Democratic National Committee chairman at the time, to ask him about a run. Kaine said he planned to announce he wasn’t running the very next day; Cecil said he asked him to wait and reconsider. Kaine did, and in January he’ll be sworn in.
Mo Elleithee, a senior Kaine strategist, said that one of Cecil’s unsung talents is his ability to smooth over the often fractious turf wars that typify candidate and party-committee relations. “There was absolutely none of that in this campaign,” he said. “That is a real testament to Guy.”
As for the Jell-O, it has become something of a tradition. Guy’s partner brought it in 2006 and had a friend overnight the mold in time for the election this year. So will the Jell-O be back in 2014? “Haven’t decided,” Cecil repeated twice, as he tried to spread credit to his staff and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the DSCC chairwoman.
“The way that all of these stories get written is, the winning campaign did everything right and the losing campaign did everything wrong,” he said. “And never has that been the case.”
Truth be told, the blue Jell-O tasted pretty awful. “Blackberry acidic,” Cecil described it. Victory, however, was never so sweet.
This article appeared in print as "Year of the ‘Guy’ "
This article appears in the Nov. 17, 2012, edition of National Journal.