When Sen. Patty Murray agreed to become chief recruiter and fundraiser for Senate candidates, the odds of Democrats retaining control of the Senate appeared dim. Now, with Election Day near, Murray's early decision to play offense has given her party a shot at keeping its majority intact.

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WASHINGTON — When Patty Murray was coaxed into her second stint as chief recruiter and fundraiser for Senate candidates, some pundits were already forecasting her failure.

The tea-party-infused 2010 elections had trimmed the Senate Democrats’ majority from a filibuster-proof 60 seats down to 53. As chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, or DSCC, Murray would be guarding 23 Democratic incumbents while only 10 Republicans faced re-election.

Even some Democratic operatives thought the odds looked good for the GOP to retake control of the Senate in the 2012 election.

Now, with Election Day fast approaching, Democrats have a shot at keeping their four-vote margin of majority intact. There is even wildly optimistic talk about picking up a seat. Democrats remain competitive in five Republican-held seats, and may flip at least two of them.

So what happened? One explanation: Murray went on offense.

In spring of 2011, just months after Murray took the job, the DSCC announced a seemingly improbable strategy not only to defend Democratic incumbents but to target Republican-held seats in six states: Massachusetts, Indiana, Maine, Texas, Nevada and Arizona.

Of those, recent polls show the Massachusetts race tied or leaning Democratic, and in Maine, former Gov. Angus King is leading in some surveys. King is running as an independent, but Democrats hope he would caucus with them. Only Texas is considered firmly in the red column.

Intrade, the online-betting market, currently pegs the odds of Democrats retaining their majority at 4 to 1. If they do, part of the credit would lie with Murray’s early decision to get aggressive. And it would mark a turnabout from her first time at the helm of DSCC a decade ago, when Democrats lost two seats and control of the chamber in the 2002 midterm elections.

Murray said her insight this time around was to spot hope for Democrats amid the whupping they suffered in 2010. The key to victory, she believed, was to find and field strong candidates who shared values with mainstream voters.

“It was a tough election cycle for Democrats and people were pretty down,” Murray said of 2010. “But I looked at it as a real opportunity.”

Murray was hardly alone in her thinking. Her predecessor as head of DSCC, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, argued early on that expanding the Senate Democratic majority was possible, though convincing donors it could be done was a tougher task.

It was that realization, Murray said, that helped her change her mind about taking the helm at DSCC again. She — along with several top Democrats — initially turned down Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s request to become the party’s top Senate strategist.

Murray said she rebuffed Reid because she was worn out from an intense campaign against Republican Dino Rossi to win her fourth term. She relented just weeks later.

In 2001, by contrast, Murray volunteered for the DSCC post; then-Majority Leader Tom Daschle marveled it was the first time someone had taken the job without being asked.

Individual campaigns

This year, Democrats have benefitted from strong individual campaigns as well as Republican stumbles.

In Massachusetts, Harvard law professor and consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren is favored to unseat Republican Scott Brown. In Missouri, Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment has nudged once-vulnerable incumbent Claire McCaskill into the Democratic column in most polls.

Republican challengers in Ohio and Florida have sputtered, although Democrat John Tester faces a tough Republican challenge in Montana, and a Republican is expected to succeed retiring Democrat Ben Nelson in Nebraska.

Murray said she focused on recruiting winnable candidates. She helped woo former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine to run for the seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, talking to Kaine about early childhood education and his other passions.

A Senate bid “wasn’t even on his radar,” Murray said.

The contest between Kaine and Republican George Allen, a former U.S. senator and former Virginia governor, remains a dead heat, though Kaine has pulled ahead in some recent polls.

Shortly after Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota announced in January 2011 that he would not seek re-election, the DSCC lined up former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp as a likely successor. Several top political analysts, including Charlie Cook, Stu Rothenberg and Larry Sabato, now rate the North Dakota contest a tossup, although the state leans conservative.

In Indiana, the unexpected defeat of longtime incumbent Richard Lugar against a tea-party favorite in the Republican primary has created a viable shot at victory by Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly.

“I’m optimistic that we can keep the majority,” Murray said. “But a lot of these races, not surprisingly, are very close. Many of them are in red states.”

Female candidates

Murray also sought out female candidates, including U.S. Reps. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Shelley Berkley of Nevada. The Senate has 17 women, including six Democrats up for re-election and two Republicans retiring. If all six Democratic incumbents win, it would take three new female senators to top the record of 18 who served in the last Congress.

Sabato, of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the DSCC and Murray were smart to gear up early to get strong candidates to run. But Sabato said any national strategy by the DSCC will matter less to Democrats’ chances of maintaining control of the Senate than the vagaries of each state’s races and the coattail effects of the presidential race.

“I give most of the credit to the candidates,” he said.

Sabato said the DSCC and its counterpart, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign (NRSC), can be crucial in funneling money to help campaigns. The DSCC has raised $91.2 million since the 2010 election, compared with $81 million by the National Republican Senatorial Campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics.

Outside groups

But the election spending by party committees has been overshadowed by the millions of dollars raised by outside groups. For instance, in Indiana, the DSCC spent $1.9 million in advertising and other independent expenditures against Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock.

But Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit group co-founded by Karl Rove that does not have to disclose donors, spent $2.15 million against Donnelly, the Democratic candidate. Crossroads also outspent the DSCC in Nevada, pouring in nearly $4 million against Berkley, the Democratic candidate, compared to $3.3 million spent by DSCC against Republican Dean Heller.

Having spent the better part of two years handicapping the election, Murray declined to predict how many Senate seats Democrats may lose or gain.

“I just look at the individual races, the individuals I know so well and say, ‘How can we make sure they all win?’ “

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com