Few noticed when the National Republican Senatorial Committee started going only by its initials at the end of TV and radio ads. It saved seconds of airtime at most, but to the committee's leaders, the NRSC tag was a clear message of how this election cycle had been different than ones in the recent past: This time, they were doing it better.
"When you spend tens of millions on TV, those two seconds matter," Rob Collins, the NRSC's executive director, told reporters Thursday during a pen-and-pad session.
The election will be remembered for a historic GOP wave and as the deep repudiation of Democrats and President Obama. But Republicans are adamant their victory was more than a product of circumstances: The GOP says 2014 was the election in which their pollsters, strategists, and behind-the-scenes operatives rediscovered their cutting edge—and bested the once-vaunted Democratic political machine.
The boasting has become vocal since Republicans retook the Senate and posted big victories in House, gubernatorial, and even state legislative races. The Republican National Committee has touted its revamped ground game and analytics operation. Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers' flagship political operation, has said its early, Obamacare-themed barrage of TV ads was one of the election's defining decisions.
And a troika of groups—the GOP super PAC American Crossroads, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the NRSC—have made clear that they think their aggressive intervention in Republican primaries saved the party from another litany of gaffe-prone nominees.
Republicans have good reason to brag: It has been a long time since most of them have had results that back it up. In 2008 and 2012, the innovative Obama campaigns set the standard of excellence against Republican campaigns marred by bad polling and ineffective ground games. Even in 2010, when the party ran up huge wins, Republicans questioned why the GOP also squandered chances in the Delaware and Colorado Senate races and fell short of the majority.
That's not the case now, and the operatives who ran the campaigns—many of whom were there in 2010 and 2012—say that's no accident. The bitter losses of two years ago convinced many of them that deep changes needed to be made to the GOP's political operation by 2014, the fruit of which they're seeing now.
"Defeat can be a great teacher because it forced us, and the committees especially, to look at everything we had done and not done and figure out how we could do it better," said Steven Law, president and CEO of American Crossroads.
For Law, that meant months of in-depth discussions and seminars with Silicon Valley strategists and former committee leaders to determine how it could improve the quality of its TV ads and data analytics. AFP removed much of its senior national staff after its effort at grassroots mobilizing in the 2012 presidential election failed to materialize much influence on voters. The changes were biggest at the NRSC, which invested time and money in recruiting candidates and then training them to handle the high-pressure scrutiny of a Senate race.
The group hired Republican strategist Kevin McLaughlin in part to work directly with those campaigns in their home states. While the party's data and digital failures received most of the attention, McLaughlin told reporters on Thursday that the GOP's problem was closer to its core—something he told Collins and NRSC Chairman Jerry Moran when they hired him.
"Our candidates suck," he said then. "Our staffs suck. We are way behind."
The NRSC said it insisted that its candidates spend a mandated amount building their ground games—the deficiencies of which have been particular focal points of criticism in the past—and digital advertising. To help its polling, which came under fire in 2012 when many Republicans thought Mitt Romney was on track to win the presidency, the committee's Political Director Wad Baker hired multiple pollsters to survey the same races.
For Republicans, this week's success not only resulted in victories for their candidates, it also meant they were free to criticize the Democratic strategists they considered arrogant. For weeks, GOP strategists have been critical of Sen. Mark Udall's reliance on abortion and contraception messages in his campaign, a focus they say put him out of step with voters more worried about the economy and global security. On Thursday, NRSC staffers took particular aim the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee signature political effort this cycle, a $60 million operation to model the electorates of key battleground states that they called the "Bannock Street Project."
It had been seen as one of the party's best hopes for retaining the Senate because it could help Democrats turn out voters who normally stay home during midterm elections.
"For all the coverage and elation, it turned out to be the New Coke of this election cycle," said NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring. "It didn't work."
But for all the renewed confidence, Republicans also say they know that just as they were never as dumb as they looked in 2012, they aren't as smart as they look now, either. The next election cycle will bring a much better map for Senate Democrats, who after two years of defending in red states like Arkansas and Alaska will get to target blue-state Republicans in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Turnout patters, which skew Republican in midterms, will revert to a presidential year when more minorities and young voters are more likely to cast ballots. And while Senate races are competitive, they don't match the speed, scale, and intensity of a presidential race.
"This is a step in a good direction. Just a step," said Scott Reed, the Chamber of Commerce's chief political strategist. "An important step and a step everyone competed at a vigorous level, but it's just a step."