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Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013

Defending the Senate

Matt Canter’s fight for a Democratic majority

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Matt Canter has led political campaigns at the local, state and national level across the country. Now, as Deputy Executive Director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), Canter guides campaigns for the U.S. Senate, working to maintain the Democratic majority. In 2012, Canter helped Democrats defend 23 Senate seats and gain two additional seats despite long odds. Born in Wisconsin, Canter graduated from Whitefish Bay High School and UW-Madison. Canter now lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Kyle, their son Sam, who was born this month, and their dog Rudy.

How did a kid from Whitefish Bay end up playing a major role in all of the highly contested U.S. Senate races?

Passion for the work, tolerance for late nights and, certainly, luck. What’s helped me is building trusting relationships with the people on the campaign trail. The majority of people who work in politics are there for all the right reasons, and you learn everything you need to know from the people around you.

Almost everyone I know and respect in politics started out as the most junior staffer in the room. I did that—on a number of campaigns—and then slowly gained more and more responsibility. The key is never getting too comfortable. It’s the competitive, hard-fought races that matter most and offer opportunity for personal growth. If it’s easy, then it’s not worth doing.

The Senate races looked pretty daunting after the Democrats got trounced in the 2010 elections. But keeping the majority and electing great new senators was the inspiration to do it.

What exactly does someone in your position do?

A lot of talking! I’m part of a cast of hundreds working to win Senate races and keep a Democratic majority. My job is to be a resource for campaigns and the national press. I spend most of my day working on our competitive races, helping campaigns hire communications teams and working with the people on the ground to push the campaign’s message every day. I also spend time talking to national media about the Senate landscape and, of course, pushing back on the well-oiled Republican attack machine here in Washington.

You had a very interesting 2012 election cycle where the pundits were predicting that the Democrats would lose control of the U.S. Senate, but instead the Democrats gained two seats. What were your biggest challenges?

We had to defend 23 seats, including seven open seats where the Democratic senators were retiring. Four of the seats we had to defend were in states that President Barack Obama was not even contesting and another half-dozen were in presidential battlegrounds. But the single biggest challenge was the flood of outside money from right-wing groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads and the Chamber of Commerce. They spent over $200 million against our candidates. Most of that money came from organizations that don’t have to disclose their donors. Fortunately Republicans’ animosity for President Obama clouded their judgment, and they spent nearly all their money attacking Obama and trying to nationalize each race. But many voters make their decision in Senate races independently of their choice for president. We focused our resources on defining the choice between the two people on the ballot. Our organization, which discloses all its donors and abides by strict limits on the amount people can contribute, spent more than $80 million to help Democratic candidates across the country, including more than $7.2 million here in Wisconsin to help Tammy Baldwin defeat Tommy Thompson.

What were your greatest successes?

Our goal was to hold the majority, and in the end we surpassed our own expectations by winning three Republican-held seats and increasing the number of Democratic senators to 55. That said, our greatest success was not the number of races we won, but the quality of candidates we helped elect. Look at Tammy Baldwin, Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota—a race no one thought we could win. We elected more women than ever before in history. Women are still dramatically underrepresented in Congress and I believe having more women around the table in Washington matters a lot.

After the Republican losses, there has been a lot of finger-pointing among the Republican factions. Where do you see the Republican Party going over the next few election cycles?

The public is justifiably frustrated with the entire system and anyone associated with it, so both political parties are struggling, but I would much rather it be us than them. The big money wing of the Republican Party—oil companies, Wall Street, the Chamber—and the tea party are at war with each other, and they are pushing all Republicans further to the right. It’s a particular challenge for Republicans in Senate races, but I expect the party will be able to unify behind a presidential candidate in 2016 and be right back in the mix. That's why we need to be focused on the fundamentals: recruiting strong candidates and running great campaigns around the issues that people care about.