Imagine, for a moment, the once unthinkable scenario that Washington Republicans are beginning to contemplate: The GOP convention in Cleveland with Donald Trump as the nominee.
After Melania Trump and the Trump kids get prime-time spots to talk about how The Donald will make America great again, every Republican senator and Senate nominee will get a turn at the podium to talk about the Republican Party and its new leader.
New Hampshire's Sen. Kelly Ayotte describes the "beautiful wall" coming between the U.S. and Mexico. Sen. Rob Portman talks about waterboarding, which Trump has endorsed with a “you bet your ass I would!” Sen. Ron Johnson defends the constitutionality of Trump’s call to surveil certain mosques, and Sen. Rand Paul reminisces about Trump making fun of his hair and height.
It's not going to happen that way, of course. Every candidate except Portman, who represents Ohio, would find a “scheduling conflict” to avoid the awkwardness. But the prospect of otherwise strong swing-state Republicans having to get elected or re-elected with Donald Trump at the top of the GOP ticket becomes more real every day.
A Trump-topped ticket is a mouthwatering prospect for Democrats, especially when it comes to retaking control of the Senate. And if Hillary Clinton can win the presidency, which Democrats seem to believe a Trump nomination would almost guarantee, Democrats would only need to retake four seats, not five, to win control of the Senate.
“Donald Trump just blows it open for our side,” a national Democrat told me. “Both because I think you’ll see a lot of people come out to vote against him and also because of the position he’ll put Republican nominees in, which is not a place they want to be.”
That “place” is trying to campaign in their home states while Donald Trump is making outrageous headlines across the country every day. Do they support what he supports? Will he take them down if they disagree with him? Are they for the wall? The database? Bombing the *&%# out of ISIS?
Even without the party's nomination, Trump put GOP Rep. Joe Heck of Nevada in a tight spot when Trump declared to ABC News that the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants “have to go. They have to go.” Heck is running for the open Senate seat against a Democrat who would be the first Latina senator in history. Did Heck agree with Trump, reporters wanted to know? (Sort of, he said.)
Leslie Sanchez, a veteran GOP pollster based in Los Angeles, told me that Trump’s comments so far will stick to all Republicans going into November, regardless of whether he's the nominee. “At some point Trump has to be accountable for what he has said, as do the people down the ballot, which doesn’t reflect the new governing majority.”
The states where Trump could do damage to sitting Republican senators is lengthy. GOP incumbents are up for re-election in seven states that President Obama won in 2008 or 2012 — Illinois, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Even though Trump is leading the Republican field for the nomination in New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Ohio, his unfavorable poll numbers among all registered voters top every candidate for any office of either party, including Clinton, who is nobody's idea of a bipartisan vote magnet.
The latest Marquette Law School poll
showed former Sen. Russ Feingold leading Johnson by 11 points in Wisconsin. Inside that poll, Speaker Paul Ryan got very high marks — 49 percent favorable to 33 percent unfavorable, Marco Rubio was 30 percent favorable to 26 percent unfavorable, while Trump was 65 percent unfavorable to 25 percent favorable.
A similar dynamic showed up in the latest PPP poll in New Hampshire, where Ayotte trailed Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan by 1 point, well within the margin of error. Not within the margin of error was Trump’s favorability rating, 60 percent unfavorable to 32 percent favorable.
In Ohio, Sen. Portman trailed former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland by 3 points in the latest Quinnipiac poll
, essentially a dead heat. But Trump topped the list of unfavorable opinions of all names tested. Almost six in 10, 58 percent of Ohioans had an unfavorable opinion of Trump, while 29 percent of registered Republicans said they would never vote for Trump under any circumstances.
Beyond the incumbents, Republicans worry a Trump candidacy could also damage their chances
for open seats in Nevada (see above) and Florida, where Latinos make up 17 percent of the electorate, and offer a safe passage to an otherwise vulnerable Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado, where the Latino vote tops 14 percent.
“He's completely radioactive,” Doug Thornell, a veteran of Democratic campaigns, told me. “If you're a Republican running for re-election in a state that Obama won, you have to be very, very worried about Trump being the nominee.
Patricia Murphy is a former Capitol Hill staffer who covers national politics for The Daily Beast.