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Senate GOP Blames Losses on Candidates

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are getting credit for increasing their party’s majority in Tuesday’s elections. There will be 55 Democratic Senators in the 113th Congress.

“The reason we were competing in North Dakota and Arizona is because of the candidates,” Democratic pollster Jef Pollock said. “Kudos to the DSCC, to Sen. Murray, to Guy Cecil, to the folks at the DSCC, for putting major league candidates in place that made many of these races competitive.”

A star recruit of Murray’s, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona (D), came up short in Arizona against Rep. Jeff Flake (R). But former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D), whose victory was the last to be called on Wednesday, defeated Rep. Rick Berg (R), and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) defeated Rep. Denny Rehberg (R). Both victories came in states Romney carried by double-digits and against statewide elected officials.

“I still believe it’s all about the type of campaign a candidate runs,” Republican media strategist Erik Potholm said. “Heidi Heitkamp turned out to be a great candidate, ran an impressive campaign and she won in a tough state for Democrats.”

It remains unclear whether the NRSC and Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) shoulder all of the blame for Tuesday’s outcome in the coming days — Cornyn is running for the open Senate Minority Whip position. On Wednesday, several GOP Hill sources said the drubbing had led to speculation that Cornyn or other leaders could face a challenge.

But Mike Slanker, the top political adviser to Sen. Dean Heller (Nev.), one of the few success stories for Senate Republicans on Tuesday, lauded the NRSC and Executive Director Rob Jesmer for their efforts in what turned out to be a tough cycle for Republicans.

“My perspective on the NRSC this cycle is they did a hell of a job. They raised a bunch of money, they got it out the door, they helped us tremendously, they were an efficient operation,” said Slanker, who served as NRSC political director in 2008.  “Some things are just out of your control, and they had a lot of that this cycle.

“Looking back, you take away two candidates who shot themselves in the foot, we win those two states,” Slanker added. “And Mitt Romney performs within a point or so in all these swing states and everything changes. It’s a different night.”

There is no doubt that President Barack Obama’s surprisingly strong re-election had some effect on the composition of the Senate, even though statewide races are often able to buck the national trend.

Democrats won the Senate races in the competitive presidential states of Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida, where the Obama campaign’s turnout efforts were unmatched and Romney ran worse than expected.

Democrats also were able to put in play five Republican-held seats in Nevada, Arizona, Massachusetts, Indiana and Maine, winning Massachusetts and Indiana and hoping that Maine’s Independent Senator-elect will caucus with the party. Few expected that in the weeks following the 2010 elections, when Murray was the only Democrat willing to chair the DSCC.

“When I took over the chair at the DSCC, we had a very large map, a lot of challenges that were handed to us,” Murray told reporters Wednesday. “And I told everyone I was going to fight to make sure we had a chance in every single state.”

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