From the beginning, [Ward] Baker, the hard-charging and brashly blunt retired Marine who ran the NRSC, pushed his candidates to insulate themselves from a national tide. After studying Senate races from 2012 and 2014, Baker and his team came to two conclusions: First, that candidates with strong favorable and job approval numbers tended to survive waves, and second, that the party’s money would be best spent to influence races early.
Though presidential turnout would favor them, Democrats started the cycle in a dark period. They hadn’t anticipated the depth of their losses in 2014, when Republicans took back the majority. Unexpected defeats of incumbents like Sens. Kay Hagan (N.C.) and Mark Udall (Colo.), two members popular among other Democratic senators, cast a pall over the caucus.But both sides thought that the map favored the Democrats.
Two-thirds of the remaining 46 conference members had never served in the minority, and relinquishing power hurt. Some of the younger members even considered making a change at the top by ousting their leader, Harry Reid (Nev.). Reid’s team heard those rumblings and successfully navigated around what could have been an ugly leadership fight.
Even beyond the traditional battleground states, Republicans saw worrisome signs that some of their members could face trouble. In October, more than a year before Election Day, One Nation, an outside group tied to the Crossroads network, began running advertisements touting Blunt’s work on behalf of military families. Trump was surging among Republican voters sick of the political establishment, and some worried that Blunt — a longtime Washington insider with a family full of lobbyists — could be vulnerable in a climate that favored outsiders.
“You could see the vulnerability a long way away,” said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist with close ties to McConnell.
Together, One Nation and the Senate Leadership Fund, another Crossroads entity, had budgeted $4 million to protect Blunt, who defied some pundits’ predictions and kept his seat.