Senate Republicans facing tough reelection races are scrambling to come up with new game plans now that Donald Trump is the likely Republican presidential nominee.
The Trump phenomenon has stunned GOP insiders, many of who believed the real estate mogul would fade as the race went on. With control of the Senate up for grabs this fall, Democrats are relishing the chance to tie Trump to targeted Republicans.
Establishment Republicans, meanwhile, are very worried.
Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the No. 2 Republican in the upper chamber, told CNN on Monday, “We can’t have a nominee be an albatross around the down-ballot races. That’s a concern of mine.”
Cornyn is a former head of the party’s Senate campaign operation, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).
Vulnerable GOP incumbents are distancing themselves from the latest political uproar surrounding Trump: his refusal on Sunday to disavow Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Trump blamed the episode on a faulty earpiece, but endangered Senate Republicans don’t appear to be giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who is trailing in the polls to former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), said on the Charlie Sykes radio show Monday that he’s praying for a nominee who will set a more inclusive tone on the campaign trail.
“I go to bed every night praying that our nominee is a person of integrity, intelligence, ideas and courage,” Johnson said. “This nation hungers for someone who can lead this nation, not be divisive.
“That’s all I can say, Charlie. I’m praying for such a leader,” he added.
Trump further alarmed Senate Republican candidates by reposting on Twitter a quote from Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.”
Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.), another Republican facing a tough reelection, condemned Trump’s remarks.
“Trump comments on KKK/Mussolini appalling,” he tweeted, also urging followers to vote for Sen.Marco Rubio (Fla.) in the presidential primary.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urged vulnerable colleagues at a lunch last week to contrast themselves with Trump when necessary.
The New York Times reported over the weekend that McConnell advised incumbents to be ready to run negative ads against Trump to create political distance.
Late last year in a memo that was leaked to The Washington Post, the NRSC called on GOP candidates to embrace Trump’s anti-Washington agenda while disavowing his controversial comments.
Republican campaign strategists, however, are warning the incumbents to walk a fine line.
“A Senate candidate or even a House candidate has to disavow issues or statements that they find most offensive as they come up. But they also have to find a reason to like our Republican presidential nominee so they don’t offend Donald Trump’s supporters,” said Patrick Davis, a former NRSC political director.
Most Democrats in the nation’s capital believed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) would win the GOP nomination. Now that Trump is well-positioned to be the party’s standard-bearer, Democrats are champing at the bit.
“Senators who already faced daunting reelection chances in November will now have an even harder time re-writing their records and distancing themselves from Trump, who they’ve all promised to support anyway should he win the nomination. Voters in Senate battleground states all around the country will soundly reject Trump, his policies and his down-ballot colleagues in November,” the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee announced Monday.
Some GOP strategists argue that Trump atop the ticket would not be bad for Senate campaigns. He could help some Senate incumbents attract blue-collar swing voters — the so-called Reagan Democrats — in industrial regions of Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Senate Republicans are up for reelection in all three states.
A Quinnipiac poll released last week showed Trump beating Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, in Ohio, 44 percent to 42 percent.
A survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, shows Trump leading Clinton by 2 points in Florida, another Senate battleground.
Senate Republican strategists say they are preparing action plans for the various voter turnout models associated with each leading Republican presidential candidate.
Trump, they believe, might give white working-class voters anxious about their economic futures reason to vote Republican.
Over the summer, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), one of the chamber’s most threatened incumbents, advised Trump to “shut up” after he said most illegal immigrants crossing the border from Mexico are brining crime to the U.S.
In December, he called Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims “anathema to American values.”
But by and large, Senate Republican candidates have avoided openly slamming Trump.
Mostly, they have adopted a strategy of doing their best to ignore him and only speak out against him when he says something inescapably outrageous.
They want to disagree with Trump firmly but politely when necessary without picking a fight with the pugnacious front-runner. Johnson did just that in December, when Trump proposed barring Muslims from entering the country.
His campaign issued a statement that “we don’t need a religious test to fix our immigration problems” but stopped far short of condemning what Feingold called Trump’s “hateful and prejudicial words.”
Johnson focused on the issue instead of the Trump-sparked media controversy by pushing legislation to strengthen vetting requirements for Syrian refugees and another bill making it more difficult to qualify for the visa waiver program.
“There’s no question that the top of the ticket will impact races. What you’re going to see is individual senators looking for opportunities to separate themselves from not just the top of the ticket but from the larger political environment and focus on issues in their state,” said Brian Walsh, a GOP strategist and a former NRSC aide.
That’s exactly what Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) are doing.
Portman is the lead Republican author of legislation on the floor this week addressing opioid abuse, a major problem in both Ohio and New Hampshire.
Portman’s campaign has knocked on 1.3 million doors in the Buckeye State and has targeted independent swing voters and Democrats. One of his main talking points is to note the more than 40 bipartisan bills he’s helped pass into law under President Obama.
Ayotte has urged the head of the Food and Drug Administration to take a more aggressive approach to prescription drug abuse.
On Monday she released her first television ad, a biographical spot featuring her daughter Kate touting her role as a problem solver who “helps make laws that help people, especially when they need it most.”
Trump recently won the GOP primary in Ayotte’s state by nearly 20 points.
During an interview with The Hill last fall, Trump predicted he would have coattails should he win the nomination: “I think they’d do better. Look at my level of popularity.”