U.S. Midterm elections are still undecided, what's next?
Democrats are on the doorstep of control, despite a series of obstacles. And they couldn’t have done it without Republicans blowing winnable races.
Steven Law has a different take on this year's strategy of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which he once directed.
With Arizona Democrat Sen. Mark Kelly on the verge of defeating Blake Masters, one of five liability-ridden Republican nominees, Republicans may now head into a pivotal Georgia run-off, pinning their remaining Senate hopes this midterm on an unproven and scandal-plagued Herschel Walker.
The GOP can still win the majority if it defeats Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), but it squandered a chance to take over the Senate in November despite obvious political advantages.
“It seemed to us that the posture of the committee was that all candidates are equally great,” said Law, who now runs the Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund super PAC. “And I just don’t think that’s objectively true.”
That is the story of a larger, existential struggle within the Republican Party. Interviews with more than 20 Republican and Democratic strategists and senators reveal the following reasons for Republicans' stumbles this year.
Former President Donald Trump acted as kingmaker, and the party reasoned that it could do little more than ride historical tailwinds.
Senate Republicans' unwillingness to further sour their strained relationship with the former president left them with losing candidates in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and New Hampshire, as popular governors declined to run.
And, for better or worse, the chip on Scott's shoulder from his own 2010 gubernatorial primary, in which he defeated an establishment favorite, shaped the NRSC's approach this cycle.
The Florida senator sees primary intervention simply: "I don't think that's the job of the D.C. crowd."
Nonetheless, many Republicans have spent the week feeling trapped in a reenactment of 2012 and 2010, when poor GOP nominees squandered winnable races and cost them Senate seats.
McConnell publicly warned in August that candidate quality is important, particularly in Senate races, a clear jab at the party's recruitment efforts.
Later, the NRSC chair admitted they had a "strategic disagreement." It persisted right up until Election Day.
Democrats had their own issues, such as an unpopular president and high inflation.
Several incumbents were on the defensive in battleground states. They did, however, capitalize on the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade reversal, raising large sums of money while heavily investing in their field operation and separating themselves from President Joe Biden.
“They completely fucked up recruitment,” said Christie Roberts, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “We had no business being in the hunt to hold the majority in this environment.”
The GOP's recruitment blunders tainted the entire general election campaign, forcing Republicans to narrow their sights due to financial woes traceable all the way back to Trump.
Law's super PAC spent $240 million in total, more than ten times what Trump spent in the general election. However, a wealthy super PAC cannot solve all problems.
Except for a botched endorsement in Alabama and vague support for two candidates named "Eric" in Missouri, Trump finished the Senate primary season with a near-perfect endorsement record.
However, after winning their primaries, the former president's preferred candidates faced new challenges, including bruised favorability, hesitant donors, and Democratic incumbents who had been running general election campaigns for 18 months.
Republicans' jaws dropped when they saw the mid-year fundraising figures. Democrats had nearly $80 million on hand in the most competitive Senate races, while Republicans had less than $20 million. According to Law, it was "a wake-up call for us."
Republicans, at least in Nevada, have their man. Adam Laxalt quickly won the former president's support and was not only publicly embraced but also closely advised by McConnell's inner circle.
Laxalt avoided the intraparty personality clashes that have dogged many other potential Republican nominees this cycle. However, many Republicans required a bailout.
Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, J.D. Vance in Ohio, and Masters in Arizona were all first-time candidates who were defeated in tough Republican primaries. Democrats also had a strong candidate in North Carolina in Cheri Beasley, so the Law-led super PAC ultimately spent $37 million to help Rep. Ted Budd (R-NC) win.
“He was the only candidate in the entire country who had that sort of unifying beginning to his race for Senate,” recalled John Ashbrook, a McConnell adviser who also worked on Laxalt’s race. The race remains too close to call.
Everyone was taken aback by an even redder state.
After Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) announced his retirement, Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan followed through on previous statewide bids — and, worse for Republicans, his message resonated.
Law, believing Ryan was a "pretty stellar" candidate, invested more than $32 million in his campaign against Vance.
That decision emphasized McConnell's focus on a narrow playing field, which meant retaining every Republican seat and aiming for a slim majority. However, that approach sparked debate.
GOP fell apart
Republican candidates had a fighting chance thanks to McConnell's super PAC, as they struggled to raise significant campaign funds on their own.
Many pro-Trump Senate candidates were accepted by McConnell's GOP allies early on, but it went hard against others.
Law's outside group helped sink former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens' Senate bid, spent against McConnell foe Rep. Mo Brooks in Alabama's GOP Senate primary, and boosted McConnell ally Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
The Senate Republican super PAC also made a late-season play in New Hampshire to derail Donald Bolduc by supporting a more moderate opponent, only to enrage conservatives by abandoning him and Masters in the general election.
Cutting general election spending in theoretically winnable states to focus on battlegrounds was a contentious decision, but Law prioritized defending Republican-held seats over pursuing aspirational pick-ups.
The outcomes were mixed. On October 20, Law received terrible news at the super PAC's regular polling meeting.
Oz had slipped back down a point after fighting his way back from a months-long double-digit deficit and nearly closing the gap with Democratic rival John Fetterman.
Democratic outside groups were pouring millions more dollars into Fetterman's campaign, which had reached its most vulnerable point of the cycle, and Republican donors were panicking.
The mood was solemn at the 3 p.m. meeting around a conference table. A portrait of McConnell, grinning, loomed over the group on the wall across from Law, as did one of retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).
Law recalled thinking to himself, "Pennsylvania is for all the marbles." Something will have to give.
That something was New Hampshire, where Republican nominee Bolduc refused to back down from his opposition to McConnell's nomination as majority leader.
Law believed that Republicans would be unable to flip New Hampshire and that Oz's candidacy was a safer bet.
Scott said his NRSC "clearly disagreed" with the super PAC down the stretch, citing a late ad buy in New Hampshire.
The super PAC's decision to withdraw funds from Arizona was met with a similar thud in some parts of the party.
When Heritage Action, a regular on Capitol Hill, launched its new Sentinel Action Fund with a late-April fundraiser in Amelia Island, Fla., it wanted to make a bigger impact.
Jessica Anderson, Executive Director of Heritage Action, hoped with her launch to solidify conservative outside support as traditional allies such as the Chamber of Commerce stepped back from long-standing roles as leading funders of GOP candidates.
Then, in August, the McConnell-connected super PAC announced that it would begin canceling its fall reservations in Arizona.
Anderson was made aware of its plans two days in advance. Law told her over the phone that Masters was a "bridge too far," but he didn't elaborate.
He later explained that he did not recall using the phrase but thought the state was a long shot. Sentinel eventually spent $8 million, including nearly $2 million in New Hampshire, as the race tightened.
However, the numbers appear to validate the ruthless approach: as of Friday, Masters was down 6 points and trailing all other statewide Republicans — and Bolduc ultimately lost by nearly 10 points.
How the Democrats took this opportunity and cashed it out
The Democratic Senate campaign arm almost exactly mirrored the Republican super PAC's late emphasis on battleground states. But it started down that road early on, prioritizing incumbent protection in four swing states and aiming for a pickup in Pennsylvania.
Biden won both Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in 2020, but the DSCC focused on the latter, concluding that the Badger State would be more difficult in a midterm year and Republican incumbent Ron Johnson was battle-tested.
And the campaign arm's chair, Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), said he was "fairly strongly" opposed to spending money on primaries in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where Lt. Govs. Fetterman and Mandela Barnes eventually won.
“We needed to marshal all of our resources first and foremost to protect incumbents,” Peters added in an interview.
Because midterm elections are always stacked against the ruling party, Democrats had to race ahead of Biden's low approval ratings and face rising prices.
That wasn't always easy; as their candidates tried to connect with voters about the pain of inflation, top Democrats working on Senate campaigns privately recalled grimacing when the White House touted positive economic statistics.
Despite this, Democrats' Senate candidates raised record-breaking amounts. For the first time in modern history, the DSCC was able to spend more money on field and voter programs than on television advertisements.
Then came the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe, which was a "huge" motivator for a base that had previously been "asleep," according to DSCC executive director Roberts.
And the Democratic Party received one final ray of sunshine this summer: the end of infighting.
Congressional Democrats passed a microchip manufacturing bill and new gun safety legislation in quick succession. They also reached a bipartisan agreement on taxes, health care, and climate change.
Republicans feared that the tax increases and increased IRS enforcement used to fund the bill would drag Democrats down, but the majority party saw something tangible to tout.
Georgia is still key
The midterm elections in 2022 will pick up where the previous cycle left off, with a December run-off that could determine control of the chamber.
The Senate Republicans' campaign arm immediately conducted a postmortem after Democrats won two Senate races in the once-solidly Republican state and took the Senate two years ago.
“The donors were pretty furious,” Scott said. “I explained to everybody how we would do it differently.”
The NRSC gathered as large a GOP coalition as possible for meetings last summer, coming to a single conclusion about how Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Jon Ossoff (D-GA) won in 2020.
Republicans discovered that they had not spent early enough, whereas Democrats had built up valuable early credibility with voters that proved virtually untouchable.
So, rather than the "radical" attacks of previous years, Republicans attempted to define Warnock as a Biden lackey this year. However, they ran into a bigger issue on their own side: Walker was well-known in Georgia for his football exploits, but voters were only now learning about his personal baggage.
He was accused of threatening his ex-wife and having secret children. Two women claimed he paid for an abortion despite publicly opposing abortion rights.
Republicans, however, backed the Trump-backed nominee, arguing that if the former president could win with similar issues in 2016, Walker could as well. However, when the ballots were counted in Georgia, Walker's problems became clear.
Gov. Brian Kemp ran about 5 points ahead of the Senate nominee, winning outright, while Walker struggled to force a run-off with Warnock. And Democrats are confident that their nominee will win again in December.
Reporting by and all rights reserved for Politico, Holly Otterbein contributed to this report.
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