Many down-ballot Republicans keep their distance from Donald Trump with blunt criticism , a refusal to campaign next to him , and — in extreme cases — an outright declaration they don’t support his presidential bid.
Is it time for Democrats to do the same with Hillary Clinton?
Democratic House and Senate candidates are confronting that question Tuesday after the head of the FBI, in an extraordinary public statement, said Clinton was “extremely careless” with her email while secretary of state. Even if the law enforcement agency didn’t recommend charges, its criticism is sure to inflame the public’s doubts about the Democratic leader’s honesty and judgment.
That should worry Democrats, who so far have been mostly silent on the investigation’s findings. Voters were already skeptical of Clinton’s character, enough that they rate her as one of the worst-ever choices for president .
And yet the party’s down-ballot hopefuls have thus far cozied up to the presumptive president nominee. Unlike Republicans, many of them proudly proclaim their support and rarely offer more than light criticism of Clinton.
This week’s development, arriving on top of her existing unpopularity, raises questions about that strategy — even if Democrats show few signs of changing course.
“Hillary’s epic unpopularity and toxicity to her ticket is the most under-covered phenomenon in this election year,” said Brad Todd, a veteran GOP strategist. “She simply cannot help anyone down ballot. The only question is how much she hurts Democrats — and when some of them screw up the nerve to admit it out loud."
Senate Democratic candidates were muted in their reaction to Tuesday’s news. The campaigns for Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Katie McGinty of Pennsylvania, Ted Strickland of Ohio, Deborah Ross of North Carolina, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, and Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona either declined to respond or ignored requests for comment.
One Democratic candidate, Jason Kander of Missouri, jabbed at Clinton.
“As I've said before, Secretary Clinton's decision to use a personal email server to conduct official business as secretary of state was a mistake,” Kander said in a statement. “I trust the thoroughness and integrity of the FBI's investigation and respect their recommendation.”
Kander is running against Republican Sen. Roy Blunt in a red state expected to back Trump in the fall. A spokeswoman said the Democrat still plans to vote for Clinton.
Rep. Patrick Murphy, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for Senate in Florida who still faces a primary, responded by saying that "there's probably never been anyone more qualified to serve as president than Hillary Clinton.
"I'm proud to support her, and she has apologized for not handling her emails in the best way possible," Murphy said. "Now that the FBI has concluded their investigation, we should learn from it. I am disappointed to see Republicans already using this as an opportunity to score partisan points to distract from the blatantly racist campaign being run by their standard-bearer Donald Trump."
Democrats say their support for Clinton is rooted in the conviction that no matter her unpopularity, she’ll defeat Donald Trump in November. Rather than sink her fellow Democratic candidates, the thinking goes, she should carry the whole party to victory at a time when House and Senate races mirror the results of the presidential race.
Early polls of the Clinton-Trump matchup suggest it’s a theory with merit: An ABC News/Washington Post poll released last week found Clinton leading Trump by 12 points, which would be the largest presidential race blowout since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 trouncing of Walter Mondale.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released the same day showed Clinton leading by five points, findings more in line with most polls of the race.
If Clinton comfortably wins the popular vote nationally, she’ll likely carry a handful of electoral battlegrounds that double as marquee Senate races in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
But the GOP hopes to complicate the Democrats’ approach by targeting split-ticket voters, who Republicans hope are still numerous enough to make a real difference in a competitive race. It’s why so many GOP candidates have tried to distance themselves from Trump while arguing, as Sen. Marco Rubio recently did, that the Senate needs to serve as a check on the next president whether Trump or Clinton occupies the Oval Office.
Their cause is aided by Clinton’s unpopularity. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from last week found that 33 percent of voters approved of Clinton, compared to 55 percent who didn’t.
A deeper dive is cause for more concern for Democrats. As the Journal reported , 32 percent of voters said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who endorsed Clinton. Only 15 percent said they would be more likely to back that candidate.
The GOP’s case, effectively, is that voters like neither party’s presidential nominee. But, by and large, only one party’s House and Senate candidates will give voice to that criticism.
Some Republican campaigns jumped on the chance Tuesday to link Democratic candidates to Clinton. In Nevada, Republicans said the law-and-order background of the Democratic nominee for Senate, former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, makes her support of Clinton especially egregious.
"Given her experience serving as Nevada's top law enforcement official, Cortez Masto's willingness to shrug off Clinton's reckless actions deserves an explanation," said John Burke, spokesman for the Nevada Republican Party. "Having had the responsibility of upholding the rule of law in Nevada, it defies reason that she would back a candidate who clearly has no regard for it."