There was a lot of talk about a crisis in the Republican Party after it failed to dislodge Barack Obama in 2012. The GOP might win hand-drawn districts and bright red states, but as a national force, it was unpopular among young people and nonwhite voters and riven by warfare between Tea Party and Establishment.
But a funny thing happened on the road to ruin. On Nov. 4, Republicans turned a favorable political season into a wave of victories that not only gave them control of the Senate and fortified their hold on the House but also padded their substantial edge among governors and tightened their grip on state legislatures. From the red state of Kansas, where a ballyhooed Republican crack-up failed to materialize, to true-blue Maryland, which elected just its third GOP governor since the 1950s, voters delivered what could only be read as a rebuke to the notion of Democratic inevitability. Record spending by Democrats in the North Carolina Senate race could not save incumbent Kay Hagan, nor could the massed artillery of Democratic interest groups put a dent in Wisconsin’s re-elected Republican Governor Scott Walker. Come January, Speaker of the House John Boehner (if re-elected by his conference) will lead the largest Republican majority since 1947, while across the Capitol, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell will assume the title he has spent a career pursuing: Senate majority leader.
It is McConnell, more than any other Republican victor, who is the owlish face of the broad off-year comeback. An unglamorous pragmatist, he takes an approach to governing that skimps on hope and change in favor of nuts and bolts. Or, shall we say, winning and losing. In the ashes of 2012, McConnell shrugged off calls to retool the GOP agenda and instead focused on the specifics of the next battle. What he saw was that 2014 would be an unusually favorable field on which to fight. In these polarized days, Republicans dominate not just in red states and red districts but also in red years–the midterm cycles when only about 90 million hardcore voters, about a fourth of the total electorate, show up at the polls. And even for a midterm election, this one was stacked with juicy targets. Few Republican incumbents appeared vulnerable, while Democrats were defending seats in red and purple states from Montana to North Carolina.
So the man who famously declared in 2010 that his agenda boiled down to opposing Obama put all his chips on that simple strategy. As Vladimir Putin, ISIS and the Ebola virus added to the challenges that typically drag down a presidency’s sixth year, McConnell labored behind the scenes to keep his troops focused on the forlorn man in the White House. Republican challengers repeated that their Democratic opponents “voted with the President 90% of the time,” and the Democrats responded by conspicuously avoiding Obama. Aided by interest groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the cooperation of key donors like the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, McConnell clamped a lid on the Tea Party and turned the election into a yawp of formless discontent from an electorate that believes the country is on the wrong track.
What kind of mandate does that create? McConnell’s approach left that question hanging. In an interview with TIME on a sunny November Monday in Hazard, Ky., while cruising to his own sixth term, the soon-to-be Senate leader sketched rather circumspect ambitions. “Exactly which bill comes up first will be determined after discussing that with my colleagues and with the Speaker,” he told TIME. “Some examples of things that we’re very likely to be voting on–approving the Keystone XL pipeline, repealing the medical-device tax, trying to restore the 40-hour workweek, trying to get rid of the individual mandate. These are the kinds of things that I believe there is a bipartisan majority in the Senate to approve.” He said he hopes to find common ground with Obama on tax reform and trade agreements–issues that, not coincidentally, deeply divide the Democrats.
He preferred not to discuss the tricky issues that divide his own party, like immigration and outright repeal of Obamacare. A riot of would-be Presidents are scrambling to seize the GOP torch in 2016, including some very noisy members of McConnell’s own Senate caucus. He’s well aware that their struggles will quickly shatter the illusion of unity that he has briefly created.
As for the President, Obama told reporters in a Nov. 5 press conference his goal is to “just get stuff done” after a year of unrelieved misery. In October 2013, as he emerged triumphant from a showdown with Republicans that briefly shuttered the government, Obama watched helplessly as the Obamacare website flopped. Since then, it seemed as if every half-step forward for the economy was blotted out by another menacing development overseas. Even some fellow Democrats wondered if Obama might be out of gas.
Not so, his aides said as the last votes were being tallied. Obama spent election night on the phone with winning and losing candidates from both parties and made plans for a meeting with congressional leaders on Friday, Nov. 7. He wants to make the most of every remaining day, as one associate put it–but it was not auspicious that his call to McConnell came after the Senator had gone to sleep.
The President left a message.
Given its empty negativity, the senate campaign of 2014 is not likely to make much of a mark in the history books. On the other hand, it would make a pretty good case study for a book on advanced political tactics.
McConnell was stung in 2012 by the GOP’s failure to capture a majority, and he put a lot of the blame on the untamed radicals of the Tea Party. Born in the populist anger of recession-era America, the movement was as zealous about knocking off Establishment Republicans as it was about beating liberal Democrats. Unvetted, untested, true-believer candidates in states across the country rode the Tea Party wave in GOP primaries only to blow up in the general election.
It was time for the Old Guard to strike back. A little-watched special election in 2013 for a House seat in Alabama saw the U.S. Chamber of Commerce turn its big guns against a Tea Party candidate. When the Establishment’s choice won a narrow victory, McConnell and his House counterpart were heartened. Boehner’s unruly backbenchers finally quit throwing spitballs and shut up, the Speaker told confidants, while McConnell advised the U.S. Chamber’s board that the Alabama special served as a warning to insurgents that 2014 would be different.
It proved to be the template for a rough primary in Mississippi earlier this year, where the GOP establishment beat back a Tea Party challenge to veteran Senator Thad Cochran. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, McConnell served notice that Tea Party enablers would pay a price for their rabble-rousing. He made an example of a GOP advertising firm, Jamestown Associates, and coaxed his colleagues into a boycott of the company. He planted stories of bloated salaries paid to the leaders of pro–Tea Party groups, which was enough to dampen some of their enthusiasm. “Mitch basically took all the wedge-driven zealots in the party who screwed up the Senate for two cycles and either slowed them down or worse,” said Rick Hohlt, a longtime GOP consultant. “He was focused and disciplined, and it was phenomenal to watch.”
Another piece of the plan fell into place when the Kochs chose not to wade into the primary war, clearing the way for McConnell and his Establishment allies. In past elections, their group Americans for Prosperity has been a champion of Tea Party candidates. Now, as AFP president Tim Phillips put it, they asked themselves, “What’s the most important thing? Is the most important thing having a more pure 45th Republican, or is the most important thing, next year, not having a hard-left majority leader?”
McConnell cared more about winning than about flyspeck ideological purity, and thus he set the tone of the 2014 campaign. “And we went along with him,” adds Scott Reed, chief political strategist for the U.S. Chamber, which spent an unprecedented $70 million this year. This battle for the soul of the party proved to be a rout: candidates favored by the Chamber won 14 of 15 elections.
Equally important was the recruitment and training of those favored candidates. McConnell’s colleagues on the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) spent months combing through battleground states in search of proven, appealing candidates who had broad support among leading Republicans. As NRSC political director Ward Baker told Time, “We wanted to be the Nick Saban of recruiting”–referring to the head coach of the powerhouse University of Alabama football team. “I think in ’13, we probably spent 50, 60% of our time recruiting.” Among the committee’s chosen targets was Representative Cory Gardner of Colorado, who matched up well alongside incumbent Senator Mark Udall, a Democrat.
It was a hard sell, Baker said, but “we weren’t going to stop until Cory Gardner said yes,” and when he did, Gardner–nicknamed the Hedgehog by NRSC staff–ran with a vengeance. Udall’s vain attempts to paint Gardner into a corner on women’s issues grew so tiresome that the Denver press dubbed him Mark Uterus.
A similar story played out in Iowa, where state senator Joni Ernst, a cheerful campaigner and officer in the National Guard, proved so appealing that retiring Senator Tom Harkin awkwardly compared her to pop superstar Taylor Swift. Harkin is one of the Senate’s leading liberals. To have his seat captured by the conservative Ernst is perhaps the widest ideological swing of the entire election.
In North Carolina, the NRSC backed the speaker of the state house, Thom Tillis, in what seemed to be an uphill battle to Election Day. He proved strong enough to withstand more than $60 million spent on behalf of his opponent, Senator Kay Hagan. In Arkansas, Representative Tom Cotton, a Harvard grad and Afghan war veteran, made short work of Democrat Mark Pryor.
Once on board, the chosen candidates were put through arduous training in the perils of a modern campaign. On one trip to Washington last year for a series of policy briefings and fundraising events, each candidate was met at the airport by a campaign “tracker”–the trade term for a hyperactive, in-your-face camera jockey dispatched by an opponent to record a politician’s every word. Even highly experienced candidates can screw up under a tracker’s constant gaze: former Virginia governor and Senator George Allen famously dug his own grave in 2006 by calling his tracker “macaca.”
Later, NRSC staff revealed that the trackers were GOP plants. “We’d like to show you the video of you and how you reacted,” the staff told the candidates, according to NRSC finance vice chairman Senator Rob Portman of Ohio. “It was just a good experience,” he added, “because most of them had never had the experience of having someone with a camera three inches from their face following them around.”
In other sessions, the committee grilled candidates using material dug up by NRSC researchers, who combed sources ranging from tax records to Facebook pages. “[We] ran them through the wringer,” said political director Baker. “I mean, it was pretty tough.” And then there were hours spent digging through polling data to create well-honed messages tailored to local voters. Practice, practice, practice. “I believe in repetition,” Baker explained. “Some of our candidates have been through media training and met with our debate team and media trainers 15 to 20 times.”
The work paid off in a campaign virtually free of GOP gaffes–a welcome change from 2010 and 2012, when Republican candidates mused disastrously on topics ranging from witchcraft to rape to the threat of Shari’a law in Dearborn, Mich. Needing a net gain of six seats to control the Senate, McConnell had captured seven seats by Nov. 5, with a strong shot at an eighth pickup in Alaska and a ninth when Louisiana holds its runoff election on Dec. 6.
The Governors’ Ball
The biggest surprises on election night were at the gubernatorial level, where state issues loom large and some pundits were predicting that the GOP would lose a couple of governor’s offices. Instead, Republicans gained three.
In Illinois, where a bipartisan history of corruption and mismanagement has created the worst government-pension crisis in the country, voters dumped Governor Pat Quinn in favor of Bruce Rauner, a Republican whose success in private-equity investing shows up in details like his membership in a $100,000 wine club. Massachusetts, bastion of liberal politics, chose a moderate policy wonk named Charlie Baker over Democrat Martha Coakley. Voters in Maryland, where two-term Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley is stepping down to continue his flirtation with a presidential bid, scorned his Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown in favor of Larry Hogan, a businessman who promised to roll back a package of tax hikes.
At the same time, Republicans staved off a series of gritty challenges to their own incumbents. Wisconsin Governor Walker, who made himself the bane of labor unions by stripping public employees of substantial bargaining power, won his third victory in four years–two scheduled elections plus a recall. That burnishes his presidential hopes. Governor Rick Scott of Florida, a rough-edged conservative, duked it out with party switcher Charlie Crist, now a Democrat; together they and their supporters spent $100 million on a fight that Scott narrowly won. Another perennial swing state, Ohio, re-elected Republican Governor John Kasich in a genuine landslide. Even embattled Kansas Governor Sam Brownback managed to hold his seat. In all, Republican Governors Association chairman Chris Christie of New Jersey was a happy man, with a pocket full of chits at the ready for his own likely 2016 White House bid.
So there was nothing grand about it–no flights of oratory, few tears, no faux Greek columns on a stage. The 2014 election was something simpler–and arguably more small-d democratic. It was the grumbling expression of an unhappy public, as heard and harnessed by a set of politicians who tune their ears to that low frequency.
Politicians like Bob Dole, if you can believe it, who is still tough as cowhide at the age of 91. Cutting for sign in his home state of Kansas on one of his trademark “thank-you tours” last May, Dole picked up the unmistakable rumble of oncoming trouble: his old friend, Republican Senator Pat Roberts, was tied to the railroad tracks and didn’t even know it.
Dole started ringing every bell he could in Washington, urging his 50-year-old network of GOP operatives to send help fast. It was another example of the Republican establishment coming out of its flinching crouch. Gone from the Senate 18 years, Dole still had the instincts to sense the problem–and the connections to put it on the map. When the Democrats pushed their Senate nominee out of the race at the last possible moment to make room for a surging independent named Greg Orman, the Roberts risk became obvious to everyone. But by then Dole had the wheels turning for a complete makeover of the Roberts campaign team, which sparked a rush of money into the Sunflower State. There was no lofty principle at work. As Dole put it to a friend, he figured Orman was a Democrat in disguise, and “I don’t want a Democrat in the Senate from Kansas.”
Perhaps politicians cut from such basic and practical cloth can succeed where loftier types have failed. It says something about these nuts-and-bolts guys that Vice President Joe Biden, a man of this ilk, successfully completed his congratulatory phone call to McConnell on election night long before the President tried and failed. They may not be flashy, but the old pros understand the ebb and flow of politics. They know that winning an election only rarely means that voters have fallen in love with you. More often, it means that on one particular November day, they hate you just a little bit less than they hate the other side. It’s a never-ending process. You have to win them over again and again and again. And you do that by deeds more than by words.
–WITH REPORTING BY JAY NEWTON-SMALL/HAZARD, KY.; ALEX ALTMAN, ZEKE J. MILLER, ALEX ROGERS, MICHAEL SCHERER AND MICHAEL DUFFY/WASHINGTON
This appears in the November 17, 2014 issue of TIME.