After Republicans nearly missed their chance to capture control of the Senate in 2010, it was all but assured they would return to power in 2012.
But, on election night last Tuesday the forgone conclusion of a Republican-controlled Senate was now a pipe dream. Democrats not only maintained a majority but picked up two more seats in the upper chamber.
Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), is the man responsible for defending the Democrats’ control of the Senate. (Republicans maintained a majority in the House.) The DSCC is the campaign arm of Senate Democrats.
In some races, Republicans gave Cecil a significant, albeit late breaking, helping hand (Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock), but the road to defend the Senate was hardly easy.
In Massachusetts, where polls often found incumbent Republican Sen. Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren deadlocked in a tight race through most of the cycle, Warren faced ugly attacks on her character and her family.
“Guy did a terrific job, not just maintaining but expanding the Democrats majority,” said Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren. “He was a sounding board for me, and I valued his advice and hard work throughout this campaign.”
In Virginia, where former Gov. Tim Kaine faced a massive ad campaign from third-party groups and his opposition, the Kaine team also relied on Cecil’s leadership and counsel.
“Guy’s strategic advice and support for our campaign were invaluable,” the governor said. “His efforts paid dividends by electing strong, results-oriented Democrats in close races all across the country, and we thank him for his leadership.”
Expanding the Map
Defense was only one half of the strategy.
“The biggest challenge was the expanding map,” Cecil told MSNBC. “It seemed like every couple of weeks we were adding a new state to the list of targeted races and we rarely removed them once they were on the list.”
At the start of 2012 cycle, the Nebraska and North Dakota seats were expected to be easy turnovers to the GOP (following the retirement of Democratic Senators Ben Nelson and Kent Conrad), while Indiana was a safe bet to remain in the red column. Virginia, Florida, Montana and Missouri represented solid pick up opportunities for the Republicans.
Holding popular moderate Sen. Brown’s seat in Massachusetts, or flipping Connecticut with the self-funding multi-millionaire Republican Linda McMahon, and well-liked former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle mounting a serious challenge in Hawaii’s open seat were never out of the realm of possibility.
Not only did the map look dim for Democrats but because of the 2010 Citizens United ruling, third-party super PACS were prepared to spend unprecedented truckloads of money to defeat Democratic incumbents on behalf of Republicans. Democrats were not expected to compete dollar for dollar with their outside counterparts.
But the battle-tested Cecil is no stranger to tough races either.
“There was too much at stake to hand the Senate off to Mitch McConnell, Jim DeMint, and Rand Paul,” Cecil said referencing a trio of conservative senators. ”From the economy and entitlements to international affairs and GLBT equality, this was a consequential election and I wanted to do whatever I could to win.”
The former political director to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, has also run, advised or coordinated numerous Senate campaigns dating back to Sen. Fritz Holling’s (D-SC) win over Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) in 1998, as well as a series of other historical races: Gov. Mel Carnahan’s (D-MO) defeat over Sen. John Ashcroft (R-O) in 2000; now-Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) over Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-AR) in 2002, and Erskine Bowles narrow loss to now-Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) in 2004.
“Guy is one of these rare talents in Washington because he is both a strategist and a manager,” said Jonathan Jones, a veteran of the Senate halls and former chief-of-staff to Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware. “He knows how to create and maintain a great work environment and how to get the most out of his staff. He knows how to win competitive political campaigns.”
In 2006, the DSCC hired Cecil as its political director where he oversaw the recruitment of candidates that led to the Democrats’ upset wins and return to power.
“I originally recruited several of them to run [in 2006] and strongly believed they should be re-elected,” Cecil said.
J.B. Poersch, Democratic strategist and Cecil’s predecessor at the DSCC, brought him on board that year.
“Guy is a smart and aggressive strategist who does those basic things really well,” Poersch said of Cecil. “If you don’t do them well, you can’t succeed.”
When he was asked to return to the DSCC in December 2010 after stinging losses in the midterm elections, there was no question that Cecil faced his toughest cycle to date.
“While everyone is writing and talking about the overall demographic failures of the Republican Party, people are forgetting about the money and what a huge hurdle it was for Democrats,” Poersch said. “Their third-party groups spent about $162 million to go on TV compared to our $80 million, but we spent it smarter and made better decisions.”
While the DSCC had spent slightly more than its Republican counterpart, the NRSC, by mid-October, Republican-leaning super PACs well-outraised Democratic super PACs in this election cycle as a whole. Democratic super PACs spent about $233 million to Republicans’ $381 million, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
Money vs. Recruitment
Poersch makes a much larger point when it comes to Cecil’s talented recruiting skills which ultimately made this difference this year. Not only did he invest in good campaigners but he recruited more likable candidates than his Republican counterparts.
“When a candidate like [Democrat] Heidi Heitkamp can win in North Dakota or [Democrat] Joe Donnelly can win in Indiana, they won for similar reasons,” Poersch said. “It gets back to the candidate factor and they were far better liked.”
Even when some of his candidates trailed in the polls in places like Wisconsin, Indiana, or North Dakota, written off by local media or the national and professional punditry, Cecil maintained confidence, made reservations for TV ad buys, and continued to invest resources in these races.
“If I spent a lot of time listening to the political class, I would never have made out of bed and into the office most mornings,” Cecil said.
“Absolutely no one in the punditry, or frankly my own party, thought we could hold the majority,” he said.
In August, both candidates in Indiana’s Senate race maintained polling numbers that kept the race close with the advantage going to the Republican Richard Mourdock. It would have been easy to play it safe, and allocate resources to other races, but Cecil and the DSCC decided to stay in Indiana contest and invest even more in order to keep it close and give Democrat Joe Donnelly a real chance to win.
In their final debate in late October, Mourdock slipped when he said that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape that it is something that God intended to happen.”
Thanks, in part, to an early investment from Cecil and the DSCC, Donnelly was prepared as a candidate to maximize the advantage of Mourdock’s mistake.
“Anyone who’s been around campaigns long enough has seen a party committee make the opposite decision only to regret it after the landscape changes but it’s too late to jump back in,” said Jones.
Given their advantage with money, it’s hard to fully grasp how the Republicans squandered their opening. Strategists in the upper echelon of the Democratic Party, like Cecil, were prepared and experienced enough to recognize the holes, fissures, and weaknesses in their Republican opposition in time to exploit them.
“They didn’t discern about who their candidates were. If it were me I would have dumped them,” said Poersch, who also advised the Democratic-leaning super PAC, the Majority PAC in 2012.
Cecil, who oversaw the re-election strategy of his old boss Sen. Michael Bennett (D-CO) against Tea-Party backed Republican Ken Buck in 2010, drew lessons from that experience in Colorado and translated a winning strategy to a broader playing field—his 2012 recruiting class.
“In 2010, many of the races were between establishment and Tea Party Republicans, and we saw it happen again with [incumbent Sen. Dick] Lugar and Mourdock,” Cecil said. “But, the real story of 2012 is that almost every candidate was trying to appeal to the Tea Party, even the most establishment-oriented Republicans.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Democratic incumbents may want Guy to stick around for the DSCC in the 2014 cycle, as the party appears to be in for a steeper climb this time around.
There will be 20 Democratic Senators up for re-election compared to 13 Republicans. Of the 20 Democrats, several hail from deep red states (Sens. Max Baucus, Mark Begich, Kay Hagan, Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor). Sens. Al Franken, Jeanne Shaheen, Mark Udall and Mark Warner will defend their seats from purple states and could face tough opposition. Potential retirements could also create vacancies in places like Illinois and New Jersey.
“You take Senate races one day, one week at a time and build it slowly,” Poersch said. “It will change, like we changed the fabric of 2012.”
In January 2009, the president had just won a historic election and Democrats had huge majorities. Few would have predicted that they were on the verge of huge losses in 2010.
“The unpredictability is something I like about politics,” Cecil said. “Otherwise, it would be just another boring desk job. Who wants that?”
As for Cecil’s future, if he doesn’t remain at the DSCC, he will likely become one of the most sought after operatives in the Democratic Party.
The 2016 Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries are only a little more than three years away and presidential campaigns will be scouting out the best the Party has to offer.
“As for 2016, he would be a major asset to any presidential campaign,” said Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle. “Hillary has said she will not run, but if she decides to, Guy would be a great asset.”
Cecil demurred when asked if he would rejoin a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.
“I left the DSCC in 2007 to work for her because I thought she would have made a terrific president and I feel even stronger today,” Cecil said. “I plan on supporting her if she decides to run, but it is premature to talk about a campaign.”