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Frustrated Democrats eye two more years in minority after falling short in key Senate races

Democrats poured record-shattering sums of money into Senate races across the country, betting that President Donald Trump's deep unpopularity would provide their path back to power.

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Alex Rogers
Manu Raju, CNN
CNN — Democrats poured record-shattering sums of money into Senate races across the country, betting that President Donald Trump's deep unpopularity would provide their path back to power.

Party leaders thought Trump's botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and divisive behavior would convince voters to flip the chamber and put an end to what Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden recently called "the chaos, the tweets, the anger, the hate, the failure."

But Trump's coattails in GOP-leaning states, combined with Democrats' miscalculations in states where they had little chance of winning and ultimately got trounced, have dramatically limited their chances to take the Senate. Moreover, Republicans believe the aggressive push to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Supreme Court seat energized their base at a crucial juncture -- while an unfolding sex scandal dogging the North Carolina Senate Democratic candidate gave them a late boost in a pivotal race that had seemed out of reach.

For Democrats, they could still end up in the majority in the next Congress. But at best, Democrats will have an extremely slim majority even if Biden wins -- and that's only if Georgia's Senate races suddenly take a turn their way.

After six long years out of power, they will likely remain in the minority, limiting the ambitions of their party and paring back Biden's agenda if he ends up in the White House.

Many in the party are frustrated -- having underperformed in Senate races for a third straight election cycle.

"We severely miscalculated," said one Democratic lawmaker who asked to remain anonymous.

Privately and publicly, Democrats are lamenting how down-ticket races took a turn for the worse -- with House Democrats poised to lose seats but hang onto their majority. And with Democrats likely to remain in the minority in the Senate, some say the party needs to focus its messaging back on the middle of the electorate and push back on voices from the left where the energy of the party now lies.

"I still believe people want us to work together," Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative West Virginia Democrat who will gain even more influence in a narrowly divided Senate, told CNN. "I've always said that I'm not inclined to do anything that would divide us more."

Trump and Republican senators won more than a half a dozen red states from Montana to South Carolina, rewarded by his loyal supporters as he tapped into the cultural wars and made misleading accusations that Democrats would completely shut down the economy and turn Americans into socialists.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Trump's weeks of rallies criss-crossing the country turned the race into a "cliffhanger against everyone's expectation."

"So, it was an extraordinary campaign," McConnell told reporters Wednesday. "I think it also helped us in our Senate races."

After Republicans on Tuesday held onto their seats in tough races in Iowa, Montana and Maine, and appear on track to win in North Carolina, Democrats now need to beat two Republican senators in two races in Georgia and hold their seat in Michigan, all the while electing Biden as president.

That strategy is far from the Democrats' dream scenario. Top party strategists had believed they put a dozen Republican Senate seats at risk, including in states the GOP has long held like Texas, South Carolina and Kansas, but the tide turned against them.

"I don't know whether I'm going to be the offensive coordinator or the defensive coordinator," McConnell said. "If my math is correct, and we win North Carolina and Maine, then I'm still the offensive coordinator."

Some Republicans argued that Democrats were throwing money into unwinnable races, and now Democrats privately say they agree.

McConnell easily won against Democrat Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot, after groups on the left spent nearly $50 million on ads against him, cruising to reelection to a seventh term after winning 117 of the state's 120 counties.

"I have always thought money was the most overrated factor in elections," said Rep. John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat following the McConnell race closely. "So few people watch live TV these days, and people just hate the ads. Also, we're too set in our partisan biases. There is so much money chasing too few persuadable voters."

Yarmuth added: "I think all of that was true of Kentucky this year."

McGrath wasn't alone in spending a huge amount of cash with little to show for it.

In South Carolina, Democrat Jaime Harrison ran against GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, which hasn't elected a Democratic senator in 15 years, raising $57 million between July and September, the largest single-quarter total by any candidate in US Senate history. In Senate elections since 2004, the South Carolina Democratic candidate never cracked 45% of the vote. But despite all his money, neither did Harrison -- despite the onslaught of spending from Harrison and outside groups like the Senate Majority PAC and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, both of which are allied with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Democrats had a financial advantage in many other races. Political groups spent more than $1.7 billion to advertise in Senate contests, according to Kantar's Campaign Media Analysis Group, 54% of which was spent by Democratic groups. Texas Sen. John Cornyn also glided to victory, even though his Democratic opponent, former Air Force helicopter pilot MJ Hegar outraised him by $6.7 million between July and September. And GOP Rep. Roger Marshall beat Democratic candidate Barbara Bollier in Kansas, even after she smashed state fundraising records.

Republican senators did have to rely upon the largesse of outside groups like the Senate Leadership Fund, led by former McConnell chief of staff Steven Law. SLF and affiliated groups — One Nation, Plains PAC, Defend Arizona, Keep Kentucky Great and the Faith and Power PAC — combined spent over $310 million on ads, more than any other organization except the Trump and Biden campaigns, according to CMAG.

"A couple hundred million dollars can buy you a lot of things, but it can't buy you a million more liberals in South Carolina and Kentucky," said Josh Holmes, a top McConnell adviser.

But nothing appears to matter more than the performance at the top of the ticket. The country has become increasingly partisan, and split-ticket voting is rare. Only 4% of registered voters said they would support Trump or Biden and a Senate candidate from the opposing party, according to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center.

Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones lost to former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville in a state Trump dominated. Meanwhile former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper defeated GOP Sen. Cory Gardner in Colorado, while former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly appears on his way to knocking off Arizona Sen. Martha McSally.

McSally, who was appointed to fill the seat once held by the late Sen. John McCain, ran behind Trump, waffled in her public support for him and failed to excite some conservatives. While Gardner ran ahead of the president, it was not enough to secure a second term in what is now a reliably blue state.

Republicans hope that John James, a Republican businessman who flew Army helicopters in the Iraq War, can defeat Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters and become the state's first Black senator. But Peters has led in the polls there, and the state is imperative to Biden's campaign strategy.

One of the rare split-ticket states could be Maine, where state House speaker Sara Gideon tried to oust Sen. Susan Collins, the last Republican member of Congress in New England. But since her first victory in 1996, Collins developed a Maine-centric, independent image, winning her last election with nearly 69% of the vote.

Collins' approval has fallen during the Trump era, due in part to her support of the 2017 GOP tax plan and the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Polls this fall showed her behind in the race, while attack ads portrayed her as beholden to special interests.

Collins has countered her toughest opponent yet with a message on what she has delivered for Maine, including financial relief for small businesses during the pandemic, and a promise that her seniority in the Senate could lead to more federal funding for her state. She also separated herself from Trump, opposing Ginsburg's replacement, Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, and even declining to say who she would vote for president.

"I'm the first person since Maine directly elected its senators to win a fifth term," Collins told supporters Wednesday.

With Gideon's failure to take down Collins, despite the Democrats' massive fundraising advantage, Democrats will need Georgia, a state that hasn't elected a Democratic senator in 20 years.

In Georgia, Republican Sen. David Perdue's race against Democrat Jon Ossoff has turned increasingly nasty in the final weeks of the campaign. The candidates are running against Libertarian candidate Shane Hazel, and if no one gets more than 50% on Election Day, the two top vote-getters will compete in a runoff on January 5.

That means it's possible that the Senate majority might not be known until Jan. 5, when the GOP would likely be favored to win one or both runoffs.

The race has already been vicious.

Perdue, a 70-year-old former Fortune 500 CEO, has dismissed Ossoff, a 33-year-old media executive, as not knowing how to create or keep a job. Ossoff recently told CNN that Perdue's butchering of Sen. Kamala Harris' name at a campaign rally was "unquestionably" racist. At their recent debate, Ossoff called the senator a "crook" who was "fending off multiple federal investigations for insider trading" while attacking "the health of the people" who he represents. Perdue snapped back that the Democrat had worked for "the mouthpiece of terrorism and Communist China" -- claims Ossoff called "ridiculous."

In Georgia, the race for the seat held by appointed GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler is certain to head to a runoff, between her and Democrat Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. In the unusual melee election, the appointed senator faced multiple candidates, including GOP Rep. Doug Collins, who targeted the same swath of conservative voters as she did. Loeffler recently told CNN that there are "no" issues on which she disagreed with the President, leaving Warnock to claim liberal and more independent voters.

"Something special and transformational is happening in Georgia," said Warnock on Tuesday night. "The people - everyday people, ordinary people - are rising up and demanding change."

Democrats have a chance in Georgia because of the rapidly changing demographics of the state, a well-organized effort to mobilize liberal voters and Trump's relative unpopularity compared to previous Republican presidential nominees.

But unlikely the bitterly contested Loeffler-Collins race, the GOP expects to consolidate its support behind Loeffler in the runoff, which could complicate Warnock's ability to win.

Democrats' sudden reliance on states like Georgia underscored Republicans' ability to take states off the map, denying Democrats a number of pickup opportunities, including in hard-fought races in Maine, Iowa and Montana.

Recent revelations of Democratic candidate Cal Cunningham's alleged extramarital affair upended the North Carolina Senate race, undercutting the image he carefully crafted as a man of integrity who serves in the Army Reserve. Tillis hammered Cunningham over the issue, and Republican groups littered the airwaves with ads about the scandal, while the former state senator attempted to shift the focus back to protecting Americans' health care amid the pandemic.

Political groups spent an astounding $183 million on ads in the North Carolina Senate race, according to CMAG, with Democrats spending more than $30 million than Republicans. But Trump and Tillis are leading in the latest ballot count in the state.

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