BY KYLE TRYGSTAD
Ward Baker has a tough act to follow: His own. As the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s political director for the 2014 elections, he helped orchestrate a stunning nine-seat Republican gain, seizing Senate control for the first time since 2006.
Baker’s reward was a promotion to executive director — and a 2016 election map so unfavorable to his party that the Democratic path back to control of the Senate need not veer outside states that Barack Obama carried twice.
Baker is well aware of the challenge of playing mostly defense, with more than twice as many Republican senators up for re-election next year as there were in 2014. Democrats faced a similar hurdle last year and were pummeled.
His counterpart at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in March predicted “a very Democratic Senate” in the next Congress.
Excited about map
The initial conditions appear ideal for Democrats: defending just two competitive seats (Nevada and Colorado), strong opportunities in six states that Obama won twice, and presidential-level voter turnout, which tends to benefit Democrats.
“I continue to feel excited about the map,” said Tom Lopach, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “When we got here we knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we knew it was a damn good map and a good year.”
At the same time, as helpful as the map is for Democrats, it’s not as bountiful as the one Republicans profited from last cycle.
Based on 2012 presidential results, the GOP’s advantage was far greater when comparing its top six pickup opportunities in 2014 (Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, all of which Republicans won) with the top six for Democrats next year (Florida, Illinois, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin).
In the last presidential election, Mitt Romney carried the six top GOP targets in 2014 by an average of 19 points, while Obama in 2012 carried the six top Democratic targets in 2016 by an average of just six points, with a 17-point victory in his home state of Illinois a notable outlier.
For Republicans, the aim is clear: Keep Democrats from a net gain of more than three seats next year. A five-seat gain would give Democrats 51 seats, but the party could also control the chamber by picking up four seats and retaining the White House, giving the vice president the tiebreaking vote.
Fifteen campaign managers, all but one working for an incumbent, attended a four-day seminar at the Republican campaign committee in July. They sat through classes with specialists on data, technology, media, polling, vote goals and field programs, with representatives from companies including Periscope and Pandora promoting their campaign products.
Before the success of 2014, Republican attempts at securing the majority had been tripped up by ultraconservative or gaffe-prone nominees whose mistakes in some cases — Missouri’s Todd Akin’s, for one — hurt fellow GOP candidates in races across the country.
After the 2012 and 2014 elections, Baker and others at the Republican committee interviewed campaign operatives and candidates from the past several cycles in search of what the committee could do to improve the party’s prospects.
“The bad candidates, everyone thinks the solution is working with the candidate,” said Deputy Executive Director Kevin McLaughlin, who ran a training program for press secretaries in 2014.
“But a lot of times we had underqualified staff putting their candidates in bad situations or responding poorly or not prepping them right. Whatever it might be, there’s a two-pronged problem here: It all rests on the candidate’s shoulders, but the staff has to be up to speed as well.”
Presidential candidates’ impact
Running in a presidential year is also inherently different from running in a midterm election, when voters can best express unhappiness with the current president by voting against his party in a congressional race.
There is also a trend away from split-ticket voting, which places a heightened importance on the electability of the two presidential nominees. With the Republican nomination fight a toss-up, and Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont challenging Hillary Rodham Clinton on the Democratic side, it’s enough to keep Senate strategists up at night.
It’s most troubling for Republican incumbents such as Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who represent states likely to be carried by the next Democratic nominee, no matter who it is.
The fortunes of those GOP incumbents, with New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, Ohio’s Rob Portman and Rep. Joe Heck — who’s running for the GOP’s top pickup opportunity, the open seat in Nevada — will hinge on a significant number of voters choosing both them and the Democratic nominee.
Democrats would face the same issue if they are serious about being competitive in states more favorable to Republicans, such as Indiana and Missouri. In an effort to expand the Senate map as much as possible, Lopach said to expect to see more Democratic announcements from “uniquely capable candidates in places folks didn’t expect us to be playing.”