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The Trench Warfare Begins

Democrats' chance to maintain their hold on the Senate now boils down to the ground game.

With just a little more than two weeks to go before the midterm election, Democrats are increasingly in need of a break or two to salvage their Senate majority. In my National Journal Daily column a month ago (September 14), after suggesting that Republicans had a 60 percent chance of scoring the six-seat net gain necessary for a majority, I asked what might go wrong for the GOP that could derail that outcome. It's useful in my business to ask, "If I am wrong about this, why am I wrong?"

There are two potential problems for Republicans that could cost them the majority in an election that certainly seems highly stacked in their favor—after all, the party just needs to get voters who normally vote Republican and live in Republican states to vote for Republican Senate candidates. Democrats are defending seven seats in states carried by Mitt Romney—six where the former presidential nominee won by margins of 14 points or more—compared with Republicans, who are defending just one seat in an Obama state (Susan Collins in Maine, who is safe). All three endangered GOP seats are in states comfortably won by Romney. This is not the fairest of fights.

My column from last month identified both money and the ground game on the Democratic side as possible obstacles for the GOP. The Democratic House and Senate campaign committees have raised considerably more money this cycle than their GOP counterparts, and the Democratic super PACs have been in a position to outgun their Republican foes by big margins as well.

Simply put, many Republican and conservative donors were enormously disappointed by their failure to pick up the three seats needed for a majority in 2012, and by Romney losing by almost 4 percentage points. They wondered if they had been misled by their leaders about the GOP's chances, or if their money had been wasted—or both. As a result, Republican donors have given considerably less, and some not at all, which has resulted in the GOP being outspent on advertising well into September in several key Senate states.

If Democrats somehow manage to hold on to the Senate, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet, Executive Director Guy Cecil, and their team, as well as Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Senate Majority PAC, headed by Susan McCue, will deserve a huge amount of credit. Virtually all of the dynamics have been working against them, but their fundraising was very impressive. Conversely, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran, Executive Director Rob Collins, and their team have been forced to do more with less because of a demoralized donor base. At the grimmest point for the GOP a couple of months ago, one Senate strategist said that it was only with the efforts of the Koch brothers that they were still in the game.

It now appears that the reluctant and even despondent Republican donors woke up in mid-to-late September, with the influx of money evening out the advertising as we approached mid-October. The Democrats' advantage has been neutralized overall. Each side still has to make tough decisions—financial triage, if you will—which will mean cutting off additional funding for some candidates who aren't doing well to concentrate spending on those who are still seen as having a chance. For example, Republican funding for former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land in the Michigan open-seat race has diminished greatly, while the party is doubling down on House Speaker Thom Tillis in his challenge to Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan in North Carolina. Former Sen. Scott Brown is getting another week's funding in his challenge to incumbent Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, in a renewed stab at picking off that seat. On the opposite side, Democrats cut off additional advertising this week in Kentucky for Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes's challenge to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and are shifting money into South Dakota to try to grab the open seat there. No committee ever has enough money to do everything it wants to do, but at this point, the financial war seems headed for something close to a draw.

The other possible fly in the ointment for the GOP was the Democratic ground game. There is no question that while the 2004 Bush-Cheney reelection campaign had the most sophisticated voter-identification and get-out-the-vote presidential campaign operation in history, the GOP's state-of-the-art capabilities atrophied over the next eight years, with the Obama-Biden campaign outgunning the Republicans greatly in both 2008 and 2012. Earlier this year, Senate Democrats announced a $60 million voter-ID and GOTV program (labeled the Bannock Street Project) with the goal of paying 4,000 workers to use techniques employed by DSCC Chairman Bennet in his 2010 race in Colorado—techniques that were greatly expanded by the Obama campaign in 2012. While some Republicans have scoffed at Democrats' ability to mount such an effort, they concede that the Democratic ground game was superior two years ago and that, in midterm elections, if Democrats can crank up turnout among young, female, and minority voters—with young, single women a prime target—their chances of success increase.

Short of some "black swan" event that changes the dynamics, the result of this election may come down to whether Democrats can replicate their past successes in midterm elections—in many cases in non-swing states, with candidates who, for all their fine qualities, are not inspirational, aspirational, or charismatic. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to assess the quality and effectiveness of a ground game before an election. This is going to come down to old-fashioned trench warfare, fought on a race-by-race basis.

This article appears in the October 18, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Trench Warfare Begins.

(Image via Laura Gangi Pond/Shutterstock.com)