Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., was at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on Tuesday, meeting with Executive Director Guy Cecil when news broke that Bennet was considering chairing the committee next cycle.
In an interview with Roll Call minutes later, Cecil wouldn’t divulge the details of his conversation with his former boss or what his own intentions are for next cycle, when the party is again facing a challenging map. He said he needed to take some more time before deciding what to do next — the suit he wore on election night was still hanging on his door, after all.
While Cecil wasn’t ready to move on to 2014, he did dissect the 2012 election cycle, which resulted in a two-seat net gain for the party. The campaign committee certainly caught some breaks, but Cecil credited the end result to a mixture of strong candidates, competent campaigns and strategic decisions by the DSCC.
Given the landscape, with vulnerable Democratic seats in several states Mitt Romney went on to win by double digits, it was vital for each campaign to make the race a choice between the two candidates on the ballot, he said.
“If you really believe fundamentally that these races are choices, all of a sudden recruitment takes an elevated sense of importance,” Cecil said. “Who you hire as a manager, how you structure a finance team, what message you run. From there everything sort of flowed.”
Cecil knew the map was challenging at the outset of the cycle, but it only got tougher for Democrats early in 2011, when another Democrat seemed to be announcing his or her retirement every couple of weeks. He always believed there was a path to hold the majority, but it wasn’t until the end of last year, when the DSCC recruited Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Richard Carmona in Arizona, that the map began to expand in their favor.
Nowhere was the elixir of a likable candidate, strong campaign and DSCC involvement more obvious than in the Sioux State. Heitkamp held a celebratory dinner for her consultants Monday at the Capitol Hill restaurant Art and Soul. Along with former Sen. Byron Dorgan, former Rep. Earl Pomeroy and Sen. Kent Conrad, whom Heitkamp will replace, were seven DSCC staffers who worked intricately with her campaign.
The group of DSCC operatives included national field director John Hagner, who was on the ground in North Dakota for the last several weeks of the campaign, deputy political director Rory Steele, who sat in on each of the Heitkamp campaign’s weekly calls, and campaign services director Lauren Dikis, who helped lead the campaign’s fundraising operation.
The DSCC transferred money to the state parties, who then led the operations that resulted in 485,000 door-knocks in North Dakota and more than 2 million each in Montana and Missouri, where Sens. Jon Tester and Claire McCaskill were re-elected.
“Our money was helpful, we funded the ground, we did all that stuff, but they ran really sound, good technical campaigns,” Cecil said. “It’s nice to get a break, and it’s nice to have somebody say something stupid, but the best wins are when you just beat the opponent.”
Given the size of the map, Cecil said the DSCC started earlier, built a bigger staff, including an in-house research operation, and was more aggressive in helping campaigns raise money because candidates pay the lowest unit rate for TV ads.
In states Romney was expected to win by a big margin, the DSCC strategy was to ensure that its candidates could at least make it into October with a fighting chance. That led to spending earlier than normal in North Dakota, where the committee’s first independent expenditure ads went up in April, and Indiana, when its first coordinated ad began running in mid-June.
Beyond running ads and transferring money to the state parties, the DSCC had the added challenge of trying to help Indiana Rep. Joe Donnelly raise money when it wasn’t yet clear to donors, whose focus was turned to Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and Tim Kaine in Virginia, that he had a chance to win.
“The problem for a Joe Donnelly or a Mazie Hirono was there were so many races,” Cecil said. “It was just hard to get on the map to raise money when you had all of these other candidates running.”
This cycle was notable for how differently the two parties viewed the competitiveness of several states that turned out to be Senate battlegrounds. Nowhere was it more stark than Wisconsin, where Republicans went into Election Day believing former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson was in a strong position to win. Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin won by 8 points.
Thompson enjoyed a bump in the polls following his Aug. 14 primary victory. But the primary depleted his funds and GOP outside groups went dark over the next few weeks as Baldwin, the DSCC and Democratic outside groups were unchallenged in defining both candidates. DSCC tracking polls turned in Baldwin’s favor after a couple of weeks and she never trailed again.
In discussing how Democrats won, Cecil withheld judgment on the performance of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Instead, he said the NRSC had to deal with a dynamic the DSCC did not. He said mainstream Republicans such as Thompson and George Allen in Virginia had to tack to the right just to survive their primaries, and then were unable to attract the moderates necessary to win general elections.
Beyond that, Cecil touted the ads that the DSCC IE unit and the individual campaigns ran. They stood out, he said, from the Republican ads that often looked similar from one state to another.
“If you believe Senate races are just national elections that will only mirror the presidential election, then you believe that those type of ads are the ads to run everywhere,” he said. “Believing that the election is a choice between two people on the ballot changes the way you think about those ads.”
The DSCC also worked with campaigns in non-presidential states to model the electorate and score each voter for how likely they were to be moved. The DSCC and the campaigns used that model for targeting decisions on direct mail, canvassing and phones. The modeling also allowed the committee to look at polling results through the model prism.
“There’s a lot of data being poured into these models,” Cecil said. “They performed pretty true to form.”