GOP grows confident of Senate takeover
By: James Hohmann
February 10, 2014 05:04 AM EST
At an annual gathering of Republican bigwigs in Florida a year ago, a top GOP strategist was chided after he gave a presentation about how his party would win the Senate in 2014, including a handout that blared “MAJORITY” in red.
“Stop saying majority,” donors, consultants and even some senators told National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Rob Collins, he recalled in an interview. “Just say you’re going to be able to pick up a few seats.”
Fast forward to early this month, when the annual event took place again at the same posh Palm Beach resort. Far from preaching caution, many of the 400 donors in attendance openly mused about what a Republican Senate would bring, and Collins was the one trying to keep expectations in check.
After 15 months in the doldrums, Republicans feel like they’re finally getting their mojo back.
Emboldened by the president’s weak poll numbers, the botched Obamacare rollout and a still-sputtering economy, GOP donors and operatives are increasingly bullish about their prospects in the midterm election — most of all capturing the Senate. Seats that a year ago looked like sure bets for Democrats now have the makings of real races — in states such as Michigan, Virginia, and, if former Republican Sen. Scott Brown runs, New Hampshire.
Worries last fall that the party would pay a heavy price at the ballot box for forcing the government to shut down have faded as quickly as attention has shifted to frustration with the health care law.
No one is saying that the party has solved its underlying problems — deep distrust between the establishment and tea party wings, and the disconnect with young and minority voters that was on display in 2012. And Republicans were similarly optimistic in 2010 and 2012 about retaking the Senate until poor candidates blew winnable races.
But there’s a palpable sense of optimism that 2014 will be the GOP’s year.
“People like to hang out with winners, and it feels right now as though Republicans — unlike the early part of last year — have found their sea legs and have a bit of wind at their back,” said New York investment banker and major GOP donor Jeffrey Berenson.
After getting outraised by $16 million last year, the NRSC announced recently that it collected just slightly more money than its Democratic counterpart in December. Leaders of the major conservative outside groups say that skittish donors have started to open their checkbooks with the new year after a lackluster fundraising haul in 2013.
And in a huge boon for the Republican effort, Americans for Prosperity, the group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, has spent tens of millions of dollars already targeting vulnerable Democratic incumbents on Obamacare. That’s an unusually high level of engagement so long before Election Day.
Even with the improved environment this year, the party’s chances are still roughly 50-50, according to several election handicappers. And there is concern that contentious primaries — in states such as Georgia, Iowa, Alaska and North Carolina — will again yield nominees who can’t win a general election.
“While the mood has changed, we still have significant work to bring that about,” said NRSC Chairman Jerry Moran, a senator from Kansas.
“We could still blow it and end up hurting ourselves in some way,” added Collins. “But after last year — a rough fundraising environment, the shutdown and disagreements on the right — now people from all sides are starting to come around. … We’ve just got to go out and earn it.”
Democrats say Republican candidates haven’t put up the kind of eye-popping fundraising numbers that back up the rhetoric about a party on the march. They also caution that the election landscape is too unsettled to forecast big GOP gains; it remains to be seen whether Republican candidates in key battlegrounds such as Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina have what it takes to unseat incumbents.
“This is exactly what they said two years ago, and once again Republican mentality and reality are two very different things,” said Matt Canter, deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “The additional problem for Republicans this time is that voters understand that a Senate bought and paid for by the Koch brothers is not one that is good for their family.”
It’s hard to overstate how burned major GOP donors felt after Mitt Romney’s defeat and the party’s loss of Senate seats in 2012.
The poor morale continued through last year, hitting bottom during the two-week government shutdown in October. Donors were aghast at how party leaders acquiesced to the tea party wing of the GOP led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
Once the shutdown ended and attention shifted to Obamacare, though, the mood brightened. But it wasn’t just the health care law that lifted the party’s spirits.
In early November, establishment favorite Bradley Byrne beat conservative challenger Dean Young in a contested GOP runoff for a House special election in Alabama. Scott Reed, the senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which backed Byrne, called it “a turning point.” It made party leaders and donors less nervous that Republican primaries would yield another batch of unelectable candidates this year.
“That allowed everyone to sit up a little straighter in their chairs,” Reed said.
Then, a few weeks later, House Speaker John Boehner ripped into the outside conservative groups that he blamed for the shutdown, saying they had “lost all credibility.” It signaled to the party establishment that Republican leaders wouldn’t be pushed around anymore.
“John Boehner has done a pretty good job of that,” said major GOP donor Peter Mason, a Chicago lawyer. “It’s been the most difficult problem the Republican Party has had to deal with.”
An arguably bigger moment came when Ed Gillespie began exploring a run in Virginia against Democratic Sen. Mark Warner. The former Republican National Committee chairman, who cofounded American Crossroads, is well-known and respected among donors and strategists. Though he remains a considerable underdog against Warner, the fact that Gillespie believed the national environment is favorable enough to take on a popular, well-funded Democratic incumbent sent a strong signal to others in the GOP, Berenson said.
“If folks believe that writing the check will actually have an impact, they’re much more likely to write that check than if they feel that they are sending it down the proverbial rathole,” he said.
Berenson said rank-and-file donors are recognizing how daunting the map is for Democrats: Obama’s party must defend seats this year in five of the 10 states where the president is most unpopular.
And Republicans are encouraged by polling and other indicators they’re seeing in states like Michigan and Iowa. If Scott Brown jumps into the race against Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire – national party operatives are optimistic he will – it would further expand the map of competitive states.
Some of the Republican candidates in top-flight contests can boast of million-dollar fundraising quarters, even if they’re still getting outraised by Democrats who have the power of incumbency. Three current members of the House running for Senate in red states each eclipsed $1 million last quarter: Tom Cotton in Arkansas, Bill Cassidy in Louisiana and Steve Daines in Montana. Dan Sullivan, a former State Department official under George W. Bush taking on Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), raised $1.25 million in the last three months of 2013.
“We have candidates that can win the general, not just a primary,” Moran said. “We will avoid the pitfalls of the past.”
Democrats argue that they are still favored to win the Senate and that the narrative will shift again in the coming months. They are confident that they will be able to define Republicans early as too extreme, as they did successfully in 2012.
Tea party-establishment infighting is another X factor for Republicans.
For the first time since 2008, it appears possible no Republican incumbent will be toppled in a primary or convention. But bloody primaries could still take a toll on the eventual nominees in some races, draining war chests heading into tough general election contests.
Some outside groups underwriting tea party challengers aren’t concerned by that.
“The grass roots believe that winning a Republican majority in the Senate is possible,” said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, “but they know it will be a hollow victory if that majority is controlled by moderate Republicans like Mitch McConnell who refuse to fight for their principles.”
McConnell, facing tea-party backed Matt Bevin in a May 20 primary, rejects the assertion he’s a moderate and has strong backing from the party establishment.
Billionaire businessman Stan Hubbard said Republicans “feel more confident than I’ve seen them in a long time.” But he added that the chance of winning the majority depends on whether the most dynamic candidates emerge from GOP primaries.
“That was Romney’s problem, he couldn’t connect,” Hubbard said.
One statistic that resonates with Republicans eyeing a Senate majority: Since 1914, the president’s party has lost an average of six seats in the Senate during his sixth year — exactly how many the GOP needs. That pattern held true even in 1986, when Ronald Regan was president — and Republicans lost five seats.