Democratic senators are pushing for significant changes to how the party runs campaigns after its efforts to make major gains in Congress’ upper chamber faltered for the third cycle in a row.
“We’d be fools not to engage in some amount of self-reflection,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).
The party had hopes of winning a dozen Republican-held seats on Election Day after spending hundreds of millions of dollars of both grassroots and big-donor money to put the GOP on defense. Instead, Republicans have swept most of the competitive races, and Democrats have only netted a single seat after losing incumbent Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama and ousting Republicans in Colorado and Arizona.
The party still has a chance at claiming a narrow majority if it’s able to sweep two runoff elections in Georgia set for early January.
Senators interviewed for this story said the party needs to reexamine its message, polling methods and how it spends the tens of millions of dollars it collects from donors every election cycle. Some suggested significant overhauls to the party’s operations, including reorienting the party to focus more on long-term goals instead of supporting individual candidates.
Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, who worked with Murphy to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Democratic Senate candidates from online donors, said the party owes “the majority of voters across America who are desperate for a Democratic Senate our very best, most disciplined, and most effective effort.”
“If you lose a football game, you never say everything went perfectly, even if you did some things well and it was close,” Schatz said. “A loss is a loss. Every Democratic organization, including the DSCC [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee], should be looking at what strategies, processes, candidates, consultants and messages were most effective.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, whose tight control of the DSCC is legendary among operatives, was unanimously reelected to another two years in his job on Tuesday. Schumer is known to put in a full day on senatorial work, then work late into the night at the committee’s offices near the Capitol.
During his weekly press conference on Tuesday, Schumer was focused on the possibility that victories in both Georgia runoff elections could bring Democrats to 50 seats, and to the barest of majorities.
“We are happy. We have won the most important election that we’ve faced,” he told reporters. “When it comes to the Senate, it’s not over at all. Georgia is close. We are working very hard to win Georgia and we believe we have a very good chance of winning.”
Senators did not vote for a new chair of the DSCC, though two Democratic sources said Ben Ray Luján, a newly elected senator from New Mexico and a former chair of House Democrats’ campaign arm, was seen as a front-runner for the job. Other Democratic Senate staffers said there was some desire among some senators for a more experienced member of the caucus to take the job.
“I got on the phone with many a donor and told them Montana was tied or within the margin. .... And it wasn’t.”
In a statement, DSCC spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua said the committee was constantly examining its own work.
“There are always lessons we can apply to future elections, which is how we flipped two seats in Colorado and Arizona, forced Republicans on defense everywhere and are still in a position to win the majority with the Georgia runoffs,” Passalacqua said.
The Senate map’s bias toward rural voters and states makes it more difficult for Democrats to win control of the chamber, and only two GOP incumbents up for reelection were in states Hillary Clinton won in 2016. But senators were particularly upset by losses in Iowa and Maine, where candidates they saw as strong contenders ended up losing by significant margins.
“There’s just become such a convergence between how presidential candidates do and how Senate candidates do. It doesn’t mean you can’t buck the trend, but it means there has to be something that pulls you over the top when your presidential candidate is losing,” said Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who chaired the DSCC during the 2018 election cycle. “I really think it’s important not to jump to conclusions in races like this.”
Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a member of Schumer’s leadership team, said she thought Republicans were able to effectively label lesser-known first-time candidates as more leftist than they were.
“I think the truth is that even though none of our candidates were supporting defunding the police or socialism, or so on, you still got tagged by it,” Stabenow said. “So the question becomes addressing how do you rise above that. People knew President-elect Biden enough and didn’t believe it when they attacked him because people knew him and he had a track record. When you have a new candidate running who people don’t know, it’s easier to make something like that stick.”
Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who watched Gov. Steve Bullock lose by 10 percentage points in what was supposed to be a close race, was focused on fixing the party’s internal polls. Tester, who chaired the DSCC in 2016, said the party’s surveys were off four years ago and were even worse this cycle.
“We need to get some answers on what’s going on the last few cycles with polling,” said Tester. “I got on the phone with many a donor and told them Montana was tied or within the margin, and you need to send money. And it wasn’t. That’s false advertising. That means we’re putting funds in places that aren’t working.”
Murphy said he was hoping to refocus small-dollar donor energy and cash toward “building permanent political infrastructures in every state rather than just channeling it toward the flavor-of-the-week candidate.”
“Why does Nevada move into the Democratic column more quickly than other Southwestern states?” Murphy asked rhetorically. “It’s because Harry Reid built the permanent political organization. Why does Georgia look different than Florida and North Carolina? Because of Stacey Abrams.”
Igor Bobic and Amanda Terkel contributed reporting
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