The Senate majority leader, who had reached the pinnacle of his power just two years prior, now suddenly sensed his hard-fought majority was at risk because of a lackluster campaign run by Burr, the North Carolina Republican who many thought was safe at the beginning of the cycle.
Burr had only four campaign staffers prior to the fall. The National Republican Senatorial Committee was forced to install aides to help run the senator’s campaign, but he still wouldn’t hire a campaign manager. He was spotted playing golf in Sea Island, Georgia, with donors and took a late summer vacation to Michigan’s Mackinac Island.
He also frequently wouldn’t tell his closest confidantes where he was on any given day, often jumping in his car with one aide and his wife and popping up in random locations throughout the state, shaking voters’ hands.
And yet like Donald Trump and other Republicans who ran unconventional campaigns, Burr won. In an extraordinary turn for Republicans who came into 2016 facing the possibility of losing the Senate and the White House, the GOP managed to re-elect most of its at-risk lawmakers.
The inside story of how Senate Republicans privately plotted to hang onto power is based on interviews with more than a dozen key sources. They detailed how the party schemed to avoid a Trump tidal wave — and separate themselves from the top of the ticket — in a campaign bound to reshape GOP politics for years to come. But they also benefited from Trump’s coattails in states like North Carolina, Missouri and Pennsylvania.
The GOP had to constantly scramble to respond to Trump’s penchant for controversy, forced the NRSC to overhaul key spending decisions — including to spend big bucks earlier to help shore up incumbents in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania in the aftermath of Trump’s September squabble with a beauty queen.
There was distrust and back-biting between officials at the Republican National Committee and the NRSC, so much so that NRSC officials believed that the RNC intentionally dragged its feet to help allocate millions of dollars to Senate candidates nationwide in order to use as leverage over the Illinois Senate race. RNC officials said they forced the NRSC to spend money in Wisconsin against the Senate committee’s will.
“We recognized that 2016 presented some unique challenges,” said Steven Law, head of the McConnell-allied super PAC Senate Leadership Fund, which spent more than $140 million this cycle along with its affiliated non-profit — including nearly $32 million in New Hampshire alone.
GOP takes out primary foes
Republicans entered the election cycle with an initial goal: Prevent primaries from taking out their Senate foes. The NRSC began to put together plans to spend big against primary foes should serious threats emerge in states like Pennsylvania or Ohio. None did.
fBut it was a state that was not a battleground that was a cause of GOP concern: Kansas.
When Rep. Mike Pompeo was considering challenging the former NRSC chairman, Sen. Jerry Moran, Republican officials in Washington promised Pompeo he would be faced with a brutal onslaught. They hired a retired FBI agent to dig up dirt about Pompeo’s past.
And senator after senator urged Pompeo to drop his plans, and he even fielded a call from House Speaker Paul Ryan. Pompeo ultimately decided against running.
The GOP had other major coups, including a furious effort to persuade Marco Rubio to abandon plans to quit the Senate and instead run for reelection; Sen. Rob Portman’s trouncing of a well-known former Democratic governor in Ohio; and quashing a tea party threat in the Indiana GOP primary and later Rep. Todd Young’s dismantling of a scion of Indiana politics, Evan Bayh.
In the surprise of the night, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson pulled off an enormous upset to defeat a formidable foe — former Sen. Russ Feingold — winning on a late surge of money from GOP outside groups and heavy spending on TV by the Trump campaign. The victory came despite tension with Johnson and some of his advisers, including one top consultant who was no longer on speaking terms with the senator.
A concern with Missouri
Ward Baker, an ex-Marine and executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, didn’t like what he saw in Missouri. In late August, he surveyed the polls and saw the veteran Republican Roy Blunt’s favorability numbers underwater in the state. And he noticed that a large portion of Missouri voters didn’t know Blunt’s opponent, Jason Kander, something that the Democrat could use to his advantage.
So Baker — known for his no-nonsense, tell-it-like-is-style — told 17 people on a call: “I think you’re going to lose,” referring to Blunt.
Blunt’s team was perplexed, given that the senator was still leading in head-to-head matchups. But Republican officials in Washington recognized that the polls showed that Blunt was unpopular — in no small part because of his reputation as someone with deep ties to Washington and a close family association with lobbyists, including his son Andy, who was running his campaign.
Republican sources told CNN the NRSC wanted Andy Blunt out as the senator’s campaign manager, something the senator resisted.
Some Republicans were worried with the perception that Blunt did not spend enough time in the state. A day after the late August Baker phone call warning that Blunt could lose, the senator was spotted at a farmer’s market in the ritzy Palisades neighborhood of Northwest Washington.
Blunt spokeswoman Burson Taylor disputed that the senator did not spend much time in Missouri, arguing that he had done more than 3,000 events statewide in Missouri since becoming a senator. And she argued that few GOP operatives knew the state — or were as successful at running campaigns — as Blunt’s son Andy.
Blunt continued to reassure McConnnell and GOP leaders that he had the race under control, unveiling a flurry of ads late tying his opponent to Hillary Clinton — a move that seemed to work in a state that Trump won handily.
In late October internal GOP polling, more Trump voters approved of Kander than they did of Blunt, according to a review of the polling memo. Yet Blunt managed to turn that around.
Dealing with Trump, Access Hollywood video
GOP leaders saw the problems of a Trump candidacy coming far before he was the nominee — even though he ended up helping their candidates on Election Day.
In September 2015, Baker gathered GOP chiefs of staff with a warning: Get ready for Trump. He told them there would be an “88.5 percent” chance that Trump would be the nominee. The room erupted in laughter.
But some took it seriously, including Portman and Sen. Chuck Grassley. The message from party leaders: Define your race on your terms, focus on specific issues important to your state and attack your opponents early and often. And if Trump says something controversial, distance yourself from Trump — quickly.
And each candidate had his or her own strategy for dealing with Trump. In the aftermath of the “Access Hollywood” video where Trump talks crudely about groping women, McConnell called all of his vulnerable members to gauge their views, with some like Blunt saying that his supporters were not deterred by the video and others like Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire eager to withdraw her support.
McConnell himself criticized Trump but declined to rescind his endorsement, giving his members space to side with his stance or decide to go further.
During other Trump controversies, however, the NRSC was forced to recalibrate its tactics in dealing with their nominee. The group, which already was spending more money on TV earlier than in past election cycles, had to spend money in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire earlier to help shore up the positions of Sen. Pat Toomey and Ayotte in the aftermath of Trump’s post-convention fight with the Khan family.
And after Trump ridiculed the weight of a Latina beauty queen after the first presidential debate in late September, GOP officials similarly moved spending in all their battlegrounds — other than Illinois and Wisconsin — earlier in the calendar.
NRSC v. RNC
Perhaps the most contentious relationship was between the NRSC and the RNC. In April, the NRSC’s political director, Sarah Morgan, asked the RNC to sign off on the spending authority needed to release funds that the senatorial committee could use in coordination with the Senate campaigns — a step required by campaign finance laws. Such authority is usually handed over without question.
But, according to several sources familiar with the matter, the issue became contentious. GOP sources said the RNC dragged its feet for two months. And the sources said that ultimately the RNC chief of staff, Katie Walsh, said it would only release funds if the NRSC gave the full coordinated cash — worth $1.9 million — to vulnerable Sen. Mark Kirk in Illinois, who many thought had no chance of winning this year.
NRSC officials balked at such demands, which are unusual for party committees to make. They argued that it would be a waste of precious resources with so many states to spend cash in order to save the majority.
Ultimately, the RNC relented. But when the RNC transferred over $4.5 million to the NRSC, it did so on the condition to spend six figures to help Kirk and Johnson in Wisconsin.
Asked for comment, RNC officials pushed back, saying they were concerned the NRSC wasn’t planning to help in Illinois and in Wisconsin. RNC spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said the committee was “concerned the NRSC wouldn’t be able to fund coordinated for incumbent senators and offered to help in states where the NRSC would not commit to the campaigns.”
Walsh added that the committee was willing to help candidates the NRSC wouldn’t. “The RNC told the NRSC multiple times we would immediately sign over any authority they wanted as long as they committed to funding whatever they asked for. …. The goal was to make sure we could be helpful since their fundraising was lagging.”
Moreover, Senate Republicans privately scoffed at the RNC’s data program aimed at targeting voters, with most campaigns — other than Blunt’s — opting instead to use one created by the Koch network. Walsh said that the RNC talked to Senate campaigns “daily,” providing them with key data about voters in their states.
And when NRSC officials read in the New York Times in April that the RNC was creating a fundraising apparatus to help with Senate campaigns, they said it was the first they heard of it. No such fundraising committee was ever created, and RNC officials later said they misspoke to the Times.
Even though they both ended Tuesday with frosty relations, they both ended up getting what they wanted: A GOP White House and a Republican Senate.