The same group of Republicans who helped their party win control of the Senate in 2014 could be responsible for the GOP losing the majority next week. For these particular senators, a lot has changed over the last six years.
In 2014, it might have been incomprehensible that, six years later, Donald Trump would be president, Democrats would be raising millions in a single fundraising quarter, the 2010 health care law would be popular and the world would be grappling with a once-in-a-century pandemic.
But that’s the reality facing the GOP class of 2014, a group of senators that included some “rising stars” in the party, such as Iowa’s Joni Ernst and Colorado’s Cory Gardner. They’re now among the most vulnerable senators up for reelection, in part because of the dramatically different political environment.
“Six years is a long time in politics,” said Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, who ran the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2014.
A presidential year
One crucial difference between 2014 and 2020? These senators are now running in a presidential election year, when turnout typically spikes.
In 2014, just 37 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, the lowest turnout rate in more than 70 years, according to the United States Elections Project. The 2014 cycle was also the sixth year of Barack Obama’s presidency, and his lower favorability ratings were a problem for Democrats.
This year could see record voter turnout, with early voting numbers already surpassing votes cast before Election Day in 2016, due in part to concerns about voting in person amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“The reality is that we’re just dealing with a fundamentally different electorate,” said Guy Cecil, who was the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s executive director in 2014 and now runs the super PAC Priorities USA.
In a presidential year, it’s also tougher for down-ballot candidates to differentiate themselves from the top of the ticket. That might not be a huge problem for Republicans. NRSC executive director Kevin McLaughlin noted that in 2016, Trump carried all but two of the states where Senate Republicans are competing this year.
But Trump has struggled to match his 2016 performance in a slew of battleground states, while his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, has held a consistent polling lead nationally. While some Senate Republicans have underperformed Trump in the polls, the Senate race results are expected to track with the presidential results in competitive states.
Moran stopped short of saying Trump has been a problem for Senate Republicans on the ballot this year, but he acknowledged it’s difficult for senators to break through the presidential race.
“This particular president dominates politics in a way that has an impact on every candidate running for the United States Senate,” the Kansas Republican said.
Democrats have been tying these Republicans to Trump, and more broadly to Washington, after these same candidates ran as independent outsiders six years ago. The six Senate Republicans first elected in 2014 who face competitive races this year have supported Trump’s priorities between 97 percent and 99 percent of the time, according to CQ Vote Watch.
One Democratic strategist involved in Senate races said it was clear to voters that Republicans were “making these political calculations” about supporting Trump and were now paying a price for it.
Another Democratic strategist said these GOP senators are facing more scrutiny than six years ago, when they rode a red wave to office. The strategist said senators like Ernst who were touted as rising stars are “very flimsy when you shine a spotlight on them.”
Ernst grabbed headlines in 2014 for an ad in which she referenced castrating hogs and promised to “make ’em squeal” in Washington. Her Democratic opponent this year, real estate executive Theresa Greenfield, has argued that Ernst did not live up to her promise.
“She didn’t castrate anyone,” Greenfield said in a TV ad that featured footage from Ernst’s 2014 spot. “She cast her votes to let the corporate lobbyists keep feasting like hogs at the trough.”
McLaughlin, who also advised the NRSC in 2014, countered that these senators have their own brands and legislative accomplishments. He named Ernst’s annual tour of Iowa’s 99 counties as an example of how the 2014 class has fostered personal relationships with voters, helping to keep races close despite being outspent.
McLaughlin likened the way Republicans have approached this cycle to 2016, when GOP incumbents held on to their majority: “Run these like sheriff races, run these as local races. … Drive those things that really, really matter to people.”
The Senate battleground has also shifted since 2014, when Republicans flipped nine Democratic seats, including in GOP-leaning states such as Arkansas, West Virginia and Louisiana. This year, Democrats don’t even have a candidate running against first-term Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton.
But Democrats have expanded their battlefield this cycle, competing in more than a dozen races, several in red territory such as Kansas and Montana. One Democratic strategist called it “the biggest Senate map in recent memory.”
Longtime GOP incumbents such as Maine’s Susan Collins, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Texas’ John Cornyn are facing much more competitive races compared with six years ago. Cecil noted that Democrats are competing in states with growing and diversifying populations, including Texas and Arizona.
“Some of these states are changing so quickly that their population looks fundamentally different than it did six years ago,” Cecil said. “You see much less of that demographic change in a place like Arkansas.”
Democrats have also put these states in play because Senate challengers have raised eye-popping amounts of campaign cash.
In South Carolina, Jaime Harrison smashed the Senate quarterly fundraising record, raking in almost $58 million from July through September. Democratic challengers in competitive Senate races have raised a combined $544 million through Oct. 14, compared with GOP senators’ combined $344 million, according to fundraising reports filed this month with the Federal Election Commission.
Campaign strategists in both parties said the lopsided fundraising is a significant difference between this election and 2014, with Democrats leveraging grassroots donors energized by Trump’s election in 2016.
Republicans “have run into a buzz saw with this online fundraising,” said one GOP strategist involved in Senate races.
The battle over health care, a top issue for voters, has also shifted over the last six years.
In 2014, North Carolina state House speaker Thom Tillis said in his first Senate campaign ad, “Obamacare is a disaster.” That cycle, Tillis and other Republicans ran on repealing the 2010 health care law, tying vulnerable Democrats to the botched healthcare.gov rollout.
Six years later, Tillis’ opponent, former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, is running on protecting the law. Cunningham has honed in on his health care message while navigating allegations of an extramarital affair.
In January 2014, 50 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of the health care law, while just 34 percent saw it favorably, according to polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation. In January 2020, 53 percent had a favorable view of the law and 37 percent viewed it unfavorably. The Kaiser poll showed a turning point in 2017, when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House and tried unsuccessfully to repeal the law.
Democrats believe health care is a now salient campaign issue for their party, helping them flip the House in 2018 and potentially the Senate this year.
“More Americans now know what’s actually in the [health care law], that it’s not just about a website,” Cecil said.