Claire McCaskill and Chuck Schumer had a seemingly picayune run-in over the summer that spoke volumes about the Democrats’ lousy performance in a slate of battleground Senate races Tuesday.
The embattled Missouri Democrat’s campaign was on high-octane, flush with cash and, in McCaskill’s opinion, in no need of outside help from the Democrats’ campaign arm to run TV ads. But Schumer, the Senate minority leader, kept pushing: He wanted the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to blanket Missouri’s airwaves with TV commercials.
McCaskill prevailed, persuading Schumer to pump more than $6.5 million into the Missouri Democratic Party to give her turnout operation a dramatic boost, according to multiple people familiar with the conversations. It was the type of political cunning that the two-term senator had demonstrated in the past to win close Senate races.
McCaskill lost anyway.
Across the country, Democrats similarly out-raised their Republican opponents and built field operations that they hoped would weather a brutal Senate map that tilted heavily in Republicans’ favor. But this time, it wasn’t enough: Opponent Josh Hawley won by 6 points, exorcising the party’s demons in Missouri, and probably three other Democratic incumbents went down alongside her despite battle-hardened campaigns and big financial advantages.
Trump’s popularity and swaggering campaign presence was simply too much for even the best-run campaigns. Republicans avoided the kind of devastating gaffes that boosted McCaskill and Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) in 2012, and unlike that year, there was no presidential campaign to boost Democratic turnout.
“This state drives me crazy,” McCaskill said in her concession speech, “but I love every corner of it.”
As Democrats captured the House on Tuesday, their hopes of retaking the Senate in 2020 drifted further away. McCaskill, Donnelly and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) all lost, and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) appeared on his way to suffering the same fate, pending a recount. The party struggled mightily in Trump country and in states that were the cornerstones of the eight-year Democratic majority, from 2007 until 2015.
This story, based on interviews over the final months of the campaign with senators, candidates, congressional aides and political strategists, confirmed what became clear on election night: The suburbs may have gone for House Democrats, but the Senate map was so bad that sweeping Democratic enthusiasm did nothing to dent the Republican majority. In fact, its majority grew.
Trump’s personal investment in the Senate sealed the deal. He crisscrossed the country, hitting some states multiple times — all the while delivering sound bites that Republican hopefuls used to promote themselves and bash their opponents.
“We have always felt like we’re running with President Trump no matter what,” said Chris Hansen, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “We think he’s a huge asset, to be clear. These rallies are not by mistake.”
It wasn’t a total rout for Republicans. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin survived in a state Trump carried by 42 points; Rep. Jacky Rosen unseated Republican Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada; and the Montana and Arizona races remained too close to call Wednesday morning. Those bright spots, plus a newly rebuilt Midwestern blue wall, eased the sting somewhat for Democrats.
It could have been even worse. Democrats believed at least two of their incumbents would have retired if Hillary Clinton had won the election in 2016, rather than taking on an almost impossible reelection campaign, according to senators and aides. Instead, Democrats entered the 2018 cycle with all their incumbents running, so the GOP quickly set out to pick off the weakest of the herd.
It wasn’t a straight shot, however. In some states, Republicans had to resolve their own thorny politics before they could zero in on Democrats.
In Indiana, for instance, Republicans knew they were staring at a long, nasty primary. GOP officials worried it would give Donnelly, one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for reelection, an easy year-and-a-half to prepare. Sure enough, GOP Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer began tearing each other apart during the summer of 2017.
So the GOP set out to define Donnelly, a low-key presence during his first term in Washington. If there was one thing that distinguished Donnelly, it was his blue-collar appeal and attacks on outsourcing jobs. So when Donnelly was forced to sell stock in his brother’s company following news reports that it produced products in Mexico, Republicans smelled opportunity.
John Ashbrook, a GOP strategist and former aide to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, settled on the Trump-like nickname “Mexico Joe.” It followed Donnelly everywhere: Republicans even hired a mariachi band to follow the Democrat to events.
The move put Donnelly on the defensive as the GOP’s bloody primary played out. The low-key Donnelly ended up drawing a second unflattering sobriquet courtesy of Trump: “Sleepin’ Joe.”
He lost by nearly 10 points on Tuesday night.