The executive directors of the Democratic and Republican Senate campaign arms broke down the results of Tuesday's midterm elections Thursday at the Election Impact Conference hosted by CQ Roll Call, giving a candid assessment of the factors that led to Republicans taking control of the Senate for the first time since 2006.
Guy Cecil, who ran the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the past two cycles, said top-level Democrats knew about a week before Election Day the tide had moved against them and said they were bracing for losses across the board as results came in Tuesday night.
"We had hopes we could stem the tide, but it became clear to us that it would be difficult to do," Cecil told the audience.
Rob Collins, who led the National Republican Senatorial Committee , said early exit polling and data from across the country foreshadowed what would ultimately be a great night for Republicans.
As of Thursday morning, Republicans netted seven seats, but that could increase by two within a month.
Alaska's Senate contest remains undecided, but Democratic Sen. Mark Begich trails by some 8,000 votes, with an undetermined number of mail-in ballots yet to be counted. Republican Dan Sullivan is "up by a significant enough margin that we should win, but we’re going to see how the process plays itself out," Collins said. He noted the NRSC has sent lawyers to the Last Frontier State to oversee the process .
In Louisiana, the contest will be decided in a Dec. 6 runoff between Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu and GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy. Landrieu received 42 percent to Cassidy's 41 percent on Tuesday, while a third Republican, Rob Maness, garnered 14 percent.
The GOP's gain could even reach 10 seats, if Democratic Sen. Mark Warner somehow loses his current lead of more than 16,000 votes in the still-uncalled Virginia race. Warner attorney Marc Elias said Wednesday that was unlikely, though a recount could still be possible.
Both Collins and Cecil said while control of the Senate is no longer up for grabs, both parties will play heavily in the Bayou State runoff, calling it a whole new race.
"I think Mary Landrieu got what she got," Collins said of her initial vote tally, but added she is "an extremely tough politician."
"I think if the Republicans think this is just a long, gentle slide into victory, they're going to be fooling themselves," Collins said. "We could wake up Dec. 7 and say we just lost a Senate seat."
Looking back at the past two years of the 2014 election cycle, Collins and Cecil gave an inside look into what factors played into Tuesday's wave.
Cecil said that while the DSCC was able to raise historic amounts of money, Republicans ably nationalized the election in a year President Barack Obama remained overwhelmingly unpopular across the country.
"The reality is that the states where this battle played out were largely red states and a couple of purple states," Cecil said.
He added, "Over two-thirds of all Senate ads that the Republicans ran were about the president, which is a pretty remarkable statistic. ... And when you're doing that in states on this map, it certainly had an outsized effect."
Collins said the NRSC focused heavily on recruitment, helping the candidates the party saw as more disciplined and electable get through primary challenges to face Democratic incumbents and challengers. In the past few cycles, Collins said Republicans fumbled the chance to pick up the Senate because of poor candidate recruitment.
"There were two bars we had to get over," Collins said. "The low bar was, could we avoid saying super-alienating things? But the high bar was, could we go into a state held by an incumbent and … present a legitimate argument for change?"
Collins added that Obama was Republicans' "best surrogate."
"He kept reminding folks of what they didn’t like about this administration," Collins said, pointing to Obama's response on ISIS, Ebola and the Veterans Affairs scandal. "I think simple things they could’ve done to get in front of these stories, they didn’t and it helped us."
Cecil pushed back on reports that Democrats are frustrated with the Obama administration's role in the midterms.
"I have no qualms with what the president did for us," Cecil said. "He traveled around the country, they raised $25 million for Senate Democrats, which was a historic number for the committee. ... The reality is, the map is the map is the map is the map."
Cecil also stressed that dejected Democrats should not let 2014 be a discouragement from continuing to fight in the future.
"This was not a turnout election in the sense that another door knocked would’ve mattered," Cecil said, saying he most worried about the staffers who put in hours of time and effort into the cycle. "It was a wave election, and it was an election that was decided by undecideds over the course of the last month."
Looking forward to 2016, Cecil said a more favorable map — in which Republican Senators are up in states Obama won in 2008 and 2012 — will present a better year for Democrats.
"One of the interesting dynamics of the next election cycle is that it is the inverse of this election cycle," Cecil said.
Because of that, Collins said Republicans are already preparing.
"At the NRSC, we've already met with those incumbents and we’ve already started to put together their battle plans," Collins said, adding, "You can say they are tough states, but you can't say we can't win."
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