Trump could take down-ballot GOPers with him, but which way?

By Jennifer Yachnin | 03/21/2016 06:40 AM EDT

While likely Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has created waves within the GOP in his march through the primary elections, the former reality TV star and businessman hasn’t so much as caused a ripple in early congressional primary battles.

But that could change — and House and Senate strategists are gearing up for the potential storm a Trump-led ticket might create in November.

Political analysts believe Trump’s candidacy could roil some competitive House races — helping Democrats capture some open seats and Republican-held districts from the majority — and potentially cost Republicans control of the Senate.

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Senate Democrats aiming to capitalize on a likely Trump nomination rolled out a campaign last week aiming to brand incumbent Republicans as "ReTrumplicans" by highlighting lawmakers’ statements that they plan to support the eventual GOP nominee (E&ENews PM, March 15).

With Republicans defending 24 of the 34 Senate seats up for election this cycle, that gives Democrats plentiful targets for their message — especially in states with GOP senators where President Obama won twice, like Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Illinois.

"Republicans were already overextended on the Senate map," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Kondik suggested that Republican incumbents in states that elected Obama could face trouble on Election Day — especially if conservative voters stay home rather than support Trump.

"If you don’t have an optimal candidate at the top of the ticket, you really are asking some of these incumbent senators to generate a level of crossover vote that they might not be capable of generating," he said, pointing to Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman.

Each of those first-term Republican senators is a top target for Democrats this cycle as the party looks to flip the five seats it needs to regain control of the chamber — or four if Democrats retain the White House.

"It’s a group of Senate incumbents on the Republican side — in the most competitive races — who might not have deep statewide roots, so if there’s a wave at the top of the ticket, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see a wave sweeping away a lot of these incumbents," Kondik added.

While Obama also won Iowa in both of his presidential bids, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) remains in a less precarious position than his colleagues.

Although Grassley recently drew a top-tier Democratic challenger in former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge — who has cited Grassley’s refusal to hold hearings on filling the Supreme Court vacancy in her decision to run (E&ENews PM, March 4) — he is still viewed as likely to win a seventh term.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has reportedly told his membership that it should be prepared to run negative ads against Trump if he wins the nomination and suggested it frame a GOP-controlled Senate as necessary to balance expected Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

"We’ll drop him like a hot rock," McConnell told Senate Republicans at a private lunch last month, according to The New York Times.

But in an interview on CNN’s "State of the Union" yesterday, McConnell denied making that statement.

"What I have said is, we are going to run individual races no matter who the presidential nominee is," McConnell said. "We have spirited contests in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania and Ohio and Wisconsin, Illinois, Nevada, Colorado and Florida. And all of those races will be run by candidates seeking to appeal to the voters in those states."

Still, on ABC’s "This Week" yesterday, McConnell, who has vowed to support the GOP presidential nominee, sidestepped an inquiry about whether a Trump candidacy would hurt incumbent senators’ re-election bids.

"We’re going to be running these Senate races no matter who the nominee is. We’re not sure who the nominee is going to be yet. Look, we’ve got great candidates, and I think we have an excellent chance to hold the Senate majority," he said.

Following his victory in the March 8 primaries in Michigan, Missouri and Hawaii, Trump offered a short olive branch, expressing his support to Republican incumbents and acknowledging the opposition to his own candidacy.

"I must tell you it’s very, very important, as a Republican, that our senators and that our congressmen get re-elected. That we put a good group of people together, that we keep the people that are there," Trump said. "We have some terrific people. Not all of them are on my side, but we have some terrific people and it’s very, very important. If we’re going to be effective, it’s very, very important."

Establishment Republicans remain wary about a Trump ticket. Conservatives Against Trump, a group led in part by commentator and activist Erick Erickson, last week called for a "unity ticket" to challenge Trump at the national convention in July.

But former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) suggested a high voter turnout for Trump could help boost other Republicans.

Davis, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee who is now director of federal government affairs at Deloitte, noted that voters in a presidential year tend to split their tickets less than those who turn out for midterm or special elections.

"He has an appeal there that could bring a lot of Democrats over. … This is not [1964 GOP presidential nominee and former Arizona Sen. Barry] Goldwater. Trump starts off winning 18 states even on a bad night," Davis said. He later added: "Philosophically, [Trump] kind of spreads the field for them."

And while Trump may turn off some establishment Republicans with his bluster and bullying manner, Davis said new voters who have turned out for Trump in the GOP primaries will "follow him to the general. They’ll be straight-ticket voters."

Davis points as an example to Illinois, where Democrats see a potential pickup opportunity in the Senate race because the state trends blue in presidential cycles. Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth won the party’s nod last week and will take on Kirk in November.

Trump could help to rally new voters in the state’s conservative southern end, Davis said, helping to boost Kirk in an area where he has not performed as well as expected for a Republican.

"In a way this could be a boon for [Kirk] because this will consolidate downstate for him," Davis said.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, similarly suggested Trump’s candidacy could improve turnout for GOP candidates.

"It’s very hard for senators and congressmen to separate themselves from the national conversation and trends," Cornyn told conservative Dallas-Fort Worth-based radio host Mark Davis on Friday. "I think about the people who will turn out and I think what we’ve seen in these primaries is a lot of energy, a lot of participation by people who are not traditional Republican primary voters. If that translates into huge turnouts in November, this could … bode very well for us."

But Democratic campaign operatives see Trump’s nomination expanding their map — creating competitive races in states like Missouri, North Carolina and Arizona, where GOP incumbents are currently favored.

"When you have a front-runner who says all the things he’s been saying, I think people start to see what’s at stake," said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua. She also said Trump’s anti-immigration policies could help boost Democratic turnout in states like Florida and Nevada, which have large populations of Latino voters. Those open-seat races are considered toss-ups at the moment.

But Republican campaign operatives also assert that while Democrats see an expanded Senate map, Clinton’s likely nomination as the presidential standard-bearer could help mute some of that impact.

In Ohio, for example, some of Clinton’s recent remarks vowing "to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business" could help the GOP hold onto Ohio, where former Gov. Ted Strickland recently won the Democratic nod to challenge Portman (E&E Daily, March 15).

Republican also acknowledge that much of their efforts will continue to be trained on Obama, a strategy that has proved successful in recent cycles.

"We’re going to fight the fights we can control, and we’re going to make sure our candidates have the best tools and the best messages in each individual state," said NRSC spokesman Greg Blair. "They have flawed candidates, they have brutal primaries, and they’re still going to be living with the Obama legacy and their support for his policies."

‘You can personalize a House race’

While incumbent senators may look to separate themselves from a Trump-led ticket, the impact of the presidential nominee will be more nuanced in House contests.

"The Senate you worry more about than the House race. You can personalize a House race more than you can a Senate race," Davis said.

Republican incumbents are likely to determine whether they’ll look to separate their bids from Trump’s based on the makeup of their districts: The most competitive House races will likely center on those suburban areas with significant Republican populations who have not backed Trump in the primary cycle.

"Those are full of the kind of Republicans who don’t like Trump as much: people with higher incomes and higher educations," Kondik said.

Among the likely battlegrounds are seats like Virginia’s 10th District, where freshman Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) is seeking re-election.

The Northern Virginia district, in the suburbs of the District of Columbia, has only a slight Republican tilt, although Comstock won her first term with 57 percent of the vote in 2014.

A Trump nomination could also tip the scales in a pair of open-seat races: retiring Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick’s (R) suburban Philadelphia 8th District and retiring Rep. John Kline’s (R) suburban St. Paul and Minneapolis 2nd District.

"All of these seats are places where you might not expect Trump to be as popular, and they also happen to be some of the crucial seats for Democrats to take the House," Kondik said.

And while Davis sees a boost in voters turning out to support Trump, Kondik suggested Republicans might stay home on Election Day rather than support the nominee — and that could help flip GOP seats.

"I think a lot of Republicans will feel obligated to say they support their own party’s presidential nominee," Kondik said. "Democrats are going to do everything they possibly can to link Trump to Senate and House incumbents and candidates."

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