Election Night began with anchors and commentators essentially debating how big a Republican wave was about to sweep across the country.
Sure, Fox’s Brit Hume said before any polls closed that it was “not a foregone conclusion at all” that the GOP would win the Senate. But even liberal contributor Joe Trippi said “Democrats know it’s going to be tough” and that his party would need a “minor miracle” to hang on.
But the Beltway pundits had missed a barnburner in their own backyard, a classic case of being too reliant on polls. Still, as the results trickled in, the tone of the coverage matched the reality of the situation: Before the lights went down on the last color-coded map, it was going to be a Republican night.
On CNN, Gloria Borger said of the likely Republican win, “We have to see by how much they control the Senate and what they decide to do…They have to decide whether they want to govern.”
Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper anchored the evening for CNN. Fox’s coverage was anchored by Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly.
But MSNBC made no pretense that it wasn’t covering the election from the left, what with Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews anchoring. (Why largely relegate NBC’s political director and “Meet the Press” moderator, Chuck Todd, to the one hour the broadcast network was on the air?)
So there was a search to explain and second-guess the Democrats’ bad fortunes. During the afternoon, Matthews asked another liberal host, Joy Reid, if she saw any “good news” for progressives, and the question stumped her. As evening approached, Matthews asked why the administration wasn’t “hot-dogging in the end zone” on issues like declining unemployment and the Dow topping 17,000. (Todd reminded him that the rural economy is not good.) Chris Hayes said the party should have rallied behind ObamaCare.
CNN was first out of the box at 7 p.m. ET, calling Kentucky for Mitch McConnell despite the enormous coverage of the challenge by Alison Lundergan Grimes, who stumbled by refusing to say she had voted for Barack Obama. On Fox (which projected McConnell the winner about 15 minutes later, as did MSNBC), Kelly said Obama was in “danger” of losing the Senate, “thanks in no small part to his own waning popularity.”
There were notes of disillusionment on MSNBC, where panelists said Grimes looked “shell-shocked” and should not have refused to admit she voted for Obama. Overall, said Andrea Mitchell, Republicans had talked about ISIS and Ebola in the “scariest, most non-factual ways to take the eye off the real issues,” while “the Democrats were dumb enough to not say, ‘Let’s talk about the economy.’” Aren’t terrorism and Ebola real issues?
Mitt Romney, coming out much earlier than in 2012, showed up on Fox to declare that Americans are “tired of gridlock” and would get “action” from a GOP Senate and House.
The cable networks were marking time for awhile, with such key states as North Carolina and Kansas deemed too close to call. The hottest buzz was over former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie making the Virginia race much closer than expected against Sen. Mark Warner. There was chatter about the quality of this year’s GOP candidates, with Karl Rove saying his American Crossroads PAC had used its money and muscle to deter conservatives who couldn’t win. NBC’s Tom Brokaw said this year’s Republican Party “pretty much sent the Tea Party back to the locker room.”
The Democrats got a bump when ABC and MSNBC projected Jeanne Shaheen the winner in New Hampshire, with Scott Brown losing his second Senate race in a second state. But “there hasn’t been a surprise yet,” Megyn Kelly observed.
The Republicans inched closer to Senate control just before 10 p.m., when Fox called Colorado’s Cory Gardner the winner over Sen. Mark Udall, whose one-issue campaign had won him the moniker Mark Uterus.
It wasn’t until 10:30, when CBS declared David Perdue the Georgia winner over Michelle Nunn, that the Democrats’ fate appeared sealed. The cable networks, however, did not go along for some time. And Chris Matthews, for one, wasn’t giving up. “At the risk of being Baghdad Bob, there is still a route to victory,” he insisted.
Democrats lost another major opportunity 20 minutes later, when Fox projected that Sen. Pat Roberts would hang on, even though it looked in recent days that independent Greg Orman would overtake him. Now it was just a matter of time. Most everyone figured that Joni Ernst would win in Iowa—WHO in Des Moines had already projected her the winner—but the cable networks, at least officially, held back.
At 11:22, Fox became the first network to project that Ernst would defeat Bruce Braley in Iowa, with Megyn Kelly saying this dealt a blow to Obama’s agenda. The woman who came to national attention last spring as a pig castrator had put her party over the top.
And six minutes later, Bret Baier announced another Fox call, that Thom Tillis would unseat Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina—giving Republicans, for the moment, a net gain of seven, or one more than needed for control.
CNN and MSNBC made no such calls, although they would render the same verdict before midnight. And it was impressive the way various networks did not form a stampede when their rivals carried a projection, relying instead on their own research and judgment.
And yet there were some major polling failures in this cycle, ranging from Kentucky—where McConnell wound up winning big--to the Maryland governor’s race, to the Virginia Senate contest, where Gillespie was just thousands of votes behind the strongly favored Warner. It was another reminder that journalists rely too heavily on these surveys—but these missteps weren’t enough to cloud the big picture, which was that this was a very big night for Republicans.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.