Senate Democrats are feeling frustrated and disappointed as their effort to retake the majority appears to have fallen short once again.
The likelihood of being relegated to the minority for the next couple years hit home Wednesday when Democratic challenger Sara Gideon conceded to Sen. Susan Collins (R) in the blue state of Maine.
While it now appears Democratic nominee Joe Biden will probably eke out a victory in the presidential race, Democrats were hoping for a bigger night — especially after failing to flip the Senate in 2016 and 2018.
John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado and the only Democratic challenger to officially knock off a Senate Republican incumbent on Tuesday, said, “I was hoping that we would sweep to victory with a number of Senate wins.”
“We’re still cautiously optimistic, but it’s not the level of excitement I was hoping to wake up to,” he said.
Other Democratic strategists and aides expressed their dismay.
“I’m very disappointed, of course, but I also think it’s not entirely over. In Georgia, if that other race ends up going to a runoff, we could have two runoff elections in Georgia, which will determine the fate of whether we get to 50-50 or not,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist.
Steve Jarding, a former aide to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said, “Most people thought that Democrats were going to pick up a couple more of what appeared to be these very vulnerable senators. “
“They’ve got to be horribly disappointed. They thought Biden would pull more. If the polls were remotely right and he could win by 6, 7 or 8 points, that should be enough a margin to pull some of these dead-heat races in for the Democrat,” he said
Jarding also pointed out that the party’s exasperation extended to the House, where Democrats retained their majority but Republicans unexpectedly cut into it.
One of the most eye-opening statistics of the election was that two Senate Democratic challengers, Amy McGrath and Jaime Harrison, raised $199 million for their respective campaigns against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and wound up losing by about 21 points and 14 points, respectively.
Democratic aides on Capitol Hill expressed surprise over the outcome.
“The primary disappointment is the Senate, it’s a shocker. There are very few people who anticipated this outcome,” said a Senate Democratic staffer.
While Democratic senators were cautious in public about predicting a takeover of the upper chamber, many of them felt the polls looked very good for them.
Senate Republicans control 53 seats and defeated Sen. Doug Jones (D) in Alabama, which means Democrats needed to pick up four Republican-held seats as well as the White House.
As of Wednesday evening, Hickenlooper had won in Colorado and Democrat Mark Kelly had a comfortable lead in Arizona, although Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) has refused to concede the race.
But in a major blow to their hopes, Collins defeated Gideon and Sen. Thom Tillis (R) has a solid lead over Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham in North Carolina.
Now that Sen. Gary Peters (D) has retained his seat in Michigan, Democrats will control at least 48 Senate seats next year — two short of the 50 they need to control the agenda. This means they have to win a Jan. 5 runoff for Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s (R-Ga.) seat, and also force Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) into the runoff by keeping him below 50 percent of the vote, and then defeat him in a Jan. 5 runoff as well.
In other words, Senate Democrats’ path to the majority rests on big “ifs.”
Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan (R) was seen as potentially vulnerable before Election Day, but he had a 31-point lead over challenger Al Gross with an estimated 56 percent of that state’s vote counted.
Perdue had 50.6 percent of the vote on Wednesday afternoon with an estimated 92 percent of ballots counted. Democratic strategists, however, said they expect a trove of Democratic-leaning votes from Atlanta to narrow his lead and push him under the threshold.
Beating Loeffler will also be a tough task, as she and her Republican rival, Rep. Doug Collins (Ga.), won a combined 46.6 percent of the vote in the first round of the special election, while Democrat Raphael Warnock won 32.1 percent, with an estimated 92 percent of ballots counted. Several other Democrats in the race got more than 13 percent of the vote.
While the chance of Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) becoming the next majority leader isn’t zero, it’s rapidly shrinking.
A second Senate Democratic aide said, “It’s going to be really hard to win two runoffs in Georgia.”
The staffer noted that Collins’s win in Maine showed that independent voters stuck with her, despite their aversion to President Trump — who lost the state to Biden by an estimated 10 points — something that Democratic strategists didn’t foresee.
“She’s won independents overwhelmingly,” the source added, citing her 50.3 percent share of the vote with an estimated 83 percent of ballots counted.
Republicans, by contrast, were jubilant as it became increasingly clear Wednesday that Tillis and Collins would survive, just about ensuring that McConnell will serve another term as majority leader.
McConnell appeared confident and pleased with the election results at a news conference Wednesday morning. He stopped just short of declaring victory in the battle for the Senate, which he had labeled “50-50” before the elections.
“We’re in a pretty good position in North Carolina, but not able yet to declare victory,” he said, highlighting a pivotal race that Democrats had hoped to win.
“There is a chance that we’ll know by the end of the day,” he added, citing the possibility of “definitive” answers in Maine and North Carolina.
He then went on to tick off the Republican agenda for the lame-duck session, giving little indication that he’s worried about Democrats coming from behind to win the majority by overcoming Tillis’s lead in North Carolina or picking up one or perhaps both Georgia Senate seats in a Jan. 5 runoff.
“We need another rescue package,” he said of a new coronavirus relief bill. “And I think we need to do it before the end of the year.”
He also said that he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) want to pass a regular omnibus appropriations package before the end of the year.
By contrast, Schumer kept his head low Wednesday, giving little hint of whether he thought Democrats could still flip the chamber. After Republicans retained the Senate in 2018, Schumer said, “The map in 2020 is much better. … We will have a very good shot in 2020.”
John Ashbrook, a Republican strategist and former aide to McConnell, said Schumer and other Senate Democrats overestimated their strength heading into Election Day and misread positive media coverage for how voters felt about Trump and GOP candidates in battleground states.
“Ultimately arrogance was the great downfall of Democrats this cycle,” he said.
“They thought they could sit in a conference room in Washington, D.C., and handpick candidates, throw them in the basement and lie to small-dollar donors about fake polls, showing them with big leads, ingest mountains of cash and that alone was a recipe for success,” he added, pointing to Schumer’s recruitment of McGrath and the millions of dollars that flowed into her ill-fated campaign.