Democrats fall short in bid for majority despite favorable map

Source: Jennifer Yachnin, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Democrats failed to capitalize last night on an unusually favorable Senate map that put more than a half-dozen GOP-held seats into play — flipping a single seat as Republican incumbents defied the odds and defended their territory.

The results represented a black eye for environmental groups that had invested heavily in several key Senate contests.

Democrats talked boldly of recapturing the Senate majority this year after losing it in 2014, but their losses yesterday set up a chamber in which Republicans will likely control the majority with 53 members — including an expected win in Louisiana next month — while Democrats will likely have 47 seats, including two independents.

As of 5:30 a.m. EST today, one key race had not been called: Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) was clinging to a 700-vote lead over Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) with 95 percent of precincts reporting.

In a memo released this morning, Ward Baker, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said GOP strategists knew they were facing tough odds this cycle and worked to maximize their incumbents’ strengths.

“Pundits doubted us. The media mocked us. And operatives within our own party were pessimistic,” Baker wrote. “In the end, we held our majority exactly because we did what we said we would do: Republicans set a new standard for running effective, data-driven campaigns and the efforts of both the NRSC and our 2016 candidates will serve as a template for cycles to come.

“With 24 incumbents to defend we had few built-in advantages, but we used the time we had to flip the script and made running as an incumbent a positive,” Baker wrote. “Republican Senators talked to voters like they were running for sheriff. Every message was highly targeted and purposefully local. Democrats believed they had the golden ticket when Donald Trump officially earned the nomination. They worked to nationalize every race — and when the bottom fell out of [Hillary] Clinton’s candidacy, they had no message, no strategy, and no ability to pivot to local issues.”

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer (D), who won a third term last night by 43 points, is poised to take over as Senate minority leader from retiring Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). And given Trump’s upset victory in the presidential race and the Republicans’ enduring majority in the House, Schumer will soon become the most important Democrat in the country.

Democrats’ losses piled up in states that President Obama won twice and where Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was supposed to be highly competitive — but where the Democratic Senate candidates wound up losing in most cases, as Clinton did.

Among Democrats’ major shortfalls yesterday, former Sen. Russ Feingold failed to upend Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin.

Johnson ended Feingold’s three-term run in the Senate in one of the biggest upsets of the 2010 cycle, and the Democrat had been widely expected to reclaim his seat yesterday. But Johnson became the first Republican senator to win the traditionally blue state in a presidential cycle since 1980, taking 50 percent to Feingold’s 47 percent with 99 percent of precincts reporting late last night.

Trump likewise won the Badger State last night — the first GOP presidential nominee to do so since 1984.

Environmental groups including the Environmental Defense Action Fund and the League of Conservation Voters spent nearly $2 million looking to return Feingold to the Senate.

“Something is happening in this country tonight. I don’t understand it completely. I don’t think anybody does,” Feingold said in his concession speech. “But we as Americans have to do the best we can to heal the pain in this country and get people to come together. I would urge you to be as restrained as you can be as the next steps occur. … This could be one of the most challenging times in the history of our country.”

The minority party’s only gain came in Illinois, where Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D) ousted first-term Sen. Mark Kirk (R), who had drawn the ire of environmental activists for his shifts on climate science and related policies since his move to the Senate in 2010 (Greenwire, Oct. 28).

Duckworth secured the seat with 54 percent of the vote with 99 percent of precincts reporting, while Kirk took 40 percent.

Former White House Council on Environmental Quality chief Katie McGinty (D) narrowly lost her challenge to Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania.

Toomey — who won his first term by a 2-point margin — took 49 percent of the vote to McGinty’s 47 percent, with 99 percent of precincts reporting.

GOP holds

Elsewhere, Republican incumbents successfully defended seats in Ohio and Florida, where Sens. Rob Portman and Marco Rubio, respectively, had dominated polling in the election’s final weeks.

Portman won a second term with 58 percent of the vote with all precincts reporting. Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D), who had struggled in the race, ended with 37 percent.

Rubio took 52 percent of the vote in Florida against Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, who received 44 percent of the vote with all precincts reporting. Murphy, once a highly touted recruit, had struggled with news reports that showed he had exaggerated his resume, including his involvement in cleanup efforts related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Let me start by saying this is a lot better than the last time I did one of these in Miami,” Rubio said at his victory celebration last night, referring to his failed GOP presidential primary bid in which he lost his home state to Trump.

Democrats also saw their hopes dashed in the open Indiana Senate race, where former Sen. Evan Bayh’s comeback bid failed to generate the support needed to block Republican Rep. Todd Young’s candidacy.

Bayh, who replaced former Rep. Baron Hill (D) on the ballot in July as Democrats looked to flip the seat, received 42 percent of the vote with 99 percent of precincts reporting. Young received 52 percent.

Democrats likewise were unable to pull off long-shot challenges in Iowa, Arizona and Missouri, where they hoped to oust senior members of the Senate.

In Iowa, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R) met expectations when he defeated former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge (D).

Democrats had hoped to make Senate Republicans’ refusal to hold confirmation hearings for Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland an issue in the Senate contest, but Grassley took 60 percent of the vote with 99 percent of precincts reporting. Judge received 36 percent.

Arizona Sen. John McCain (R), who survived a primary challenge from the GOP’s tea party wing, held off Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick. With 96 percent of precincts reporting, he claimed 53 percent of the vote to Kirkpatrick’s 41 percent.

In Missouri, Sen. Roy Blunt (R) stiff-armed a challenge from Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (D). With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Blunt led with 49 percent of the vote to Kander’s 46 percent.

Democrats also fell short in North Carolina, where former state Rep. Deborah Ross (D) had staged an unexpectedly competitive challenge to Republican Sen. Richard Burr (R).

Burr received 51 percent of the vote with 99 percent of precincts reporting, while Ross received 45 percent. Recent polling in the race suggested the contest was a dead heat.

Burr has previously indicated that his third term in the Senate would be his last. Environmentalists spent more than $3 million on efforts to boost Ross’ candidacy.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) won re-election easily.

In Louisiana, voters will decide a Dec. 10 runoff between Republican state Treasurer John Kennedy and Democratic Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell. Republicans are heavily favored to retain the seat of retiring Sen. David Vitter (R) (see related story).

A few Democratic successes

Democrats did find success fending off Republican incursions in the two states where the GOP had hoped to add to its majority.

In Colorado, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet defeated El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn (R), 49 percent to 46 percent, with 82 percent of precincts reporting. Glenn failed to stir support among establishment Republicans for his bid and had trailed significantly in fundraising.

Republicans had expected to stage a more competitive race in Nevada, where Reid is retiring after three decades in office.

But Republican Rep. Joe Heck failed to match the voter turnout efforts that backed former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D), who won with 47 percent of the vote to his 45 percent with 98 percent of precincts reporting.

Democrats also held onto the seat of retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) in California — where the party dominated the all-party primary process to set up an all-Democratic general election.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris defeated Rep. Loretta Sanchez, 63 percent to 37 percent, with 82 percent of precincts reporting after midnight EST.