How Big a Night Will It Be for the GOP?

At this point, a seven-seat gain would seem the most likely outcome for Senate Republicans.

Caption:WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to reporters following the weekly policy lunch of the Republican caucus November 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. McConnell spoke on continued problems with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act during his remarks.
National Journal
Nov. 3, 2014, 6:50 p.m.

The odds of Re­pub­lic­ans win­ning a Sen­ate ma­jor­ity are ob­vi­ously get­ting very high. In­deed, it would be a real shock­er if Demo­crats held the GOP to a net gain of five seats or less, pre­vent­ing a takeover of the ma­jor­ity. Un­re­solved, however, re­mains the ques­tion of just how big a night Re­pub­lic­ans will have, and in turn, how to best in­ter­pret the res­ults. At this point, at least in the Sen­ate, this elec­tion seems to be a whole lot about the map, with more than a little polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment, in­clud­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s cur­rent un­pop­ular­ity, thrown in for good meas­ure.

If Re­pub­lic­ans take the Sen­ate, but their gains are lim­ited to the six states that Mitt Rom­ney car­ried by at least 14 points—open seats in Montana, South Dakota, and West Vir­gin­ia, along with the de­feat of Mark Be­gich in Alaska, Mark Pry­or in Arkan­sas, and Mary Landrieu in Louisi­ana (though this would not likely hap­pen un­til a Decem­ber 6 run­off)—that would be a good but hardly ex­traordin­ary night for the GOP. This would be a map elec­tion.

Should one of the six—namely Be­gich, Landrieu, or Pry­or—es­cape de­feat, that would be a bad but not fatal loss to the GOP’s ma­jor­ity hopes. A loss in Alaska, Louisi­ana, or Arkan­sas would ob­vi­ously make oth­er out­comes in oth­er states more im­port­ant to the party. Be­gich, Pry­or, and Landrieu have been good can­did­ates and have all run sol­id cam­paigns. In­deed, they have each giv­en their races all they had. Each mem­ber of this trio is ana­log­ous to strong swim­mers hav­ing con­ten­ded with a ter­rible un­der­tow.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, in shield­ing these and oth­er sen­at­ors from hav­ing to cast tough votes, also pre­ven­ted them from hav­ing the chance to break with Pres­id­ent Obama on high-pro­file is­sues. As a res­ult, each racked up what have been per­ceived as very high Obama sup­port levels that were of­ten used mer­ci­lessly in neg­at­ive ads against them. Ad­di­tion­ally, the fact that the tough chal­lenges fa­cing this coun­try re­quire tough votes meant that the Sen­ate simply de­ferred deal­ing with (or vot­ing on) many im­port­ant is­sues. Long­time Wash­ing­ton hand Bill Sweeney re­minded me of late Demo­crat­ic Rep. Mike Syn­ar’s fre­quent line: “If you didn’t want to run in­to burn­ing build­ings, don’t be a fire­man. If you don’t want to take hard votes, don’t be a con­gress­man.”

Between hav­ing to run in in­creas­ingly Re­pub­lic­an, vir­u­lently anti-Obama states, along with a down­er polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment for their party, it is prob­ably too heavy of a lift for two out of these three Demo­crats to sur­vive. Most likely, all three will go down. For Landrieu, the best out­come on Tues­day for her Decem­ber run­off chances is if Re­pub­lic­ans have already se­cured a six-seat gain, mean­ing the Sen­ate would not be up for grabs. Of course, it will still be an up­hill fight for her.

If Re­pub­lic­ans hold onto all of their seats this cycle, that would al­most guar­an­tee a Sen­ate ma­jor­ity. Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell is pulling away from Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes, and now seems se­cure. Mc­Con­nell’s pos­it­ive po­s­i­tion­ing shows the im­port­ance of run­ning a great cam­paign, along with the pit­falls that are of­ten faced by chal­lengers in their first na­tion­al race. Geor­gia may well go to a Jan. 6 run­off, but like in Louisi­ana, Demo­crat Michelle Nunn would be best situ­ated if the Sen­ate out­come is not in doubt. Re­pub­lic­an Dav­id Per­due cer­tainly ap­pears to have an edge either way.

The out­come in Kan­sas is very im­port­ant, and yet, it says little about any­thing go­ing on else­where in the coun­try. Between an open civil war tak­ing place with­in the Kan­sas Re­pub­lic­an Party, and an in­cum­bent who had be­come too de­tached and put to­geth­er a cam­paign way too late, a loss for Pat Roberts looks highly pos­sible, but it is something of a one-off race. The cir­cum­stances are aw­fully unique. As in Geor­gia, if Re­pub­lic­ans do man­age to hold onto this seat, it in­creases their odds of a GOP ma­jor­ity in the Sen­ate from high to ex­tremely high.

The first test of the ex­ist­ence of a polit­ic­al wave is wheth­er the be­ne­fit­ing party avoids los­ing many of its own en­dangered seats. The second is wheth­er it wins an over­whelm­ing num­ber of the purple, com­pet­it­ive or, in this case, light blue Demo­crat­ic-tilt­ing but still en­dangered seats. So, if Re­pub­lic­ans lim­it their own losses to just one of their own com­pet­it­ive seats (for ex­ample, Roberts in Kan­sas) and win at least three of the four key purple states (the open seat in Iowa and the three seats held by Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents—Kay Hagan in North Car­o­lina, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hamp­shire, and Mark Ud­all in Col­or­ado), that starts qual­i­fy­ing as a wave. Just win­ning one or two out of the four neut­ral-site con­tests might well help the GOP se­cure the ma­jor­ity, but it hardly qual­i­fies as a wave. These are seats where it is the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment and Pres­id­ent Obama, not the map it­self, that are the cause of Demo­crat­ic pain. Obama car­ried all four states in 2008 and three out of the four (all but North Car­o­lina) in 2012; losses in these would mean voters who voted for him have of­fi­cially re­versed course.

The third test of a real wave is the abil­ity of a party to pull off real up­sets, knock­ing off in­cum­bents who were not on the lists of first- or second-tier vul­ner­able seats. If, for ex­ample, someone like Mark Warner in Vir­gin­ia, Al Franken in Min­nesota, or Jeff Merkley in Ore­gon were to lose, that would be a wave in the sense of 1980, 1994, 2006, or 2008. These years saw wins that were way more than just a res­ult of the map. There now ap­pears to be little chance that any of these three will lose their races.

At this point, a sev­en-seat gain would seem the most likely out­come for the GOP, with eight a bit more likely than six, but either highly pos­sible. Re­pub­lic­an gains of five or few­er, or of nine or more, would def­in­itely raise eye­brows.

Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee Chair­man Mi­chael Ben­net, Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Guy Cecil, Deputy Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Matt Canter, and the whole DSCC team began this elec­tion cycle with an al­most im­possibly dif­fi­cult map and a very chal­len­ging polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment. Their goal would likely be to lose as few seats as pos­sible and hope­fully pick off a seat or two in GOP ter­rit­ory, so that in or­der for Re­pub­lic­ans to net six seats, they might have to ac­tu­ally win sev­en or eight states cur­rently in Demo­crat­ic hands.

To their cred­it, the DSCC raised $134 mil­lion this cycle, out­pa­cing the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee by al­most $30 mil­lion. They made sure that their in­cum­bents raised healthy war chests and staffed their cam­paigns with skilled op­er­at­ives. If some­how Demo­crats main­tain their ma­jor­ity, it will be one hell of a win for the party. If not, it can cer­tainly be said that they left noth­ing in the lock­er room.

NR­SC Chair Jerry Mor­an, Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Rob Collins, and their col­leagues in­her­ited a highly fa­vor­able map, but with a unique chal­lenge that they would need to un­seat at least three Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors. Re­pub­lic­ans have de­feated only three Sen­ate in­cum­bents in the last five elec­tions com­bined, a peri­od dur­ing which Demo­crats have beaten 11 GOP in­cum­bents. In fact, the last time the GOP knocked off three in­cum­bents at once was in the Re­agan land­slide of 1980, so the cur­rent team is go­ing to have to do something that hasn’t happened in the past 16 elec­tions. 

Re­pub­lic­ans have also had to avoid the sand trap of nom­in­at­ing the kind of exot­ic and highly prob­lem­at­ic can­did­ates—in­clud­ing but not ne­ces­sar­ily lim­ited to tea-party can­did­ates—that cost them as many as five seats in 2010 and 2012. Fi­nally, Re­pub­lic­ans have had to deal with a donor base that entered the 2014 cycle deeply de­mor­al­ized by Sen­ate and pres­id­en­tial losses in 2012. It can be said that these donors did not fully en­gage in this elec­tion un­til well in­to Septem­ber, even­ing out the spend­ing very late in the cam­paign.

In short, both com­mit­tees have a lot to be proud of, even if only one can even­tu­ally claim vic­tory. Demo­crats did a lot with the lousy hand they were dealt, while Re­pub­lic­ans man­aged to avoid many of the land mines that have hindered them in the last two cycles.

Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee Chair­man Steve Is­rael, along with Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Kelly Ward and in­de­pend­ent-ex­pendit­ure dir­ect­or Jesse Fer­guson, began this cycle with a dis­mal set of con­gres­sion­al lines, and have man­aged to en­dure low pres­id­en­tial ap­prov­al rat­ings, while still do­ing an ad­mir­able job of re­cruit­ing qual­ity can­did­ates, out­rais­ing Re­pub­lic­ans, and doub­ling down on de­fense. They also placed more em­phas­is on field or­gan­iz­a­tion and ad-pro­duc­tion qual­ity than in the past. To be sure, many of their most prom­ising can­did­ates were weighed down by the un­fa­vor­able cli­mate of 2014. Demo­crats’ ef­forts may very well save a lot of Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents who wouldn’t have oth­er­wise sur­vived.

Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee Chair­man Greg Walden and his team, led by Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Liesl Hickey, deftly nav­ig­ated both a tu­mul­tu­ous con­fer­ence and the af­ter­math of the 2013 gov­ern­ment shut­down. They were also dealt a fairly high num­ber of GOP re­tire­ments—today there are 27 Re­pub­lic­an open seats com­pared to just 17 Demo­crat­ic open seats. In the open seats where it mattered most, Re­pub­lic­ans re­cruited many of their best pos­sible can­did­ates and shep­her­ded them through primar­ies. This is a big reas­on why they were able to lim­it the of­fense Demo­crats could play, and why they are in a great po­s­i­tion to pick up seats on Tues­day.

With Re­pub­lic­ans hold­ing 234 seats (count­ing the Vir­gin­ia-07 seat formerly held by Eric Can­tor), near their 242 just after the 2010 elec­tion, the GOP is near the top of its mod­ern trad­ing range. A gain of 13 or more seats that would put the party at a post-World War II high, though hit­ting that level is not easy. A pickup of 34 or more seats, really not very pos­sible giv­en that 96 per­cent of Demo­crat­ic seats are in Obama dis­tricts, would put the GOP over the 267 seats they held after the Her­bert Hoover elec­tion of 1928.

The NR­CC had to deal not just with the same de­mor­al­ized donor base that their Sen­ate brethren had to con­tend with, but also with the simple fact that their ma­jor­ity was nev­er in danger—thus there was not a per­ceived need for money amongst donors. For the life of me, I have dif­fi­culty un­der­stand­ing why there is dis­pleas­ure with­in the GOP Con­fer­ence with Walden’s per­form­ance. I sus­pect that a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the cir­cum­stances might mit­ig­ate the dis­gruntle­ment, but there may be mem­bers who want to take someone’s head off and Walden’s might be seen as the easi­est tar­get. Still, Walden’s fate is ul­ti­mately Speak­er John Boehner’s call, and there are no signs that Boehner is dis­sat­is­fied with Walden’s per­form­ance.

It will all be over soon.

COR­REC­TION: A pre­vi­ous ver­sion of this story in­cor­rectly stated which pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate won North Car­o­lina in 2012. It was Mitt Rom­ney.

David Wasserman and Jennifer Duffy contributed to this article.
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