There was a time in the early summer of 2016, after Donald Trump seemed to have locked up the Republican presidential nomination but before he attacked an Indiana judge as “Mexican” and picked a ruthless fight with a Gold Star family, that embracing Trump as a down-ticket candidate seemed like a gamble worth taking.
For newcomers, it would be a way to both get early media attention and surf off the best of the Trump brand to tell voters they were a new kind of candidate, too. For incumbents, going full-Trump was the path of least resistance — a way to stay loyal to the party and its likely nominee, and associate with the man who was, against all odds, clobbering the competition in their states.
Fast forward to late August, with both conventions over and fewer than 90 days left to the general election, and life is not going well for the early Trump adopters.
Rep. Renee Ellmers was the first canary in the collapsing Trump coal mine. In March, Ellmers became the first woman in Congress to endorse Trump, saying she understood “exactly how he feels,” in his shabby treatment from the Republican establishment. Days before her June primary, Trump returned the favor and chose the pro-immigration North Carolina Republican as his debut congressional endorsement. Three days later, Ellmers lost by 30 points and became the first incumbent Republican to lose a primary in 2016. So much for coattails,
Trump hasn’t made many endorsements since then, but several candidates have fashioned themselves in the Trump mold nevertheless, perhaps none more so than Carlos Beruff, a Florida multimillionaire with no political experience who has been dubbed the “little Trump of Florida.” Like Trump, Beruff is a self-funding Republican, who takes a hard line on immigration from the Middle East.
Leaving nothing to voters’ imaginations, Beruff has even run ads declaring, “I’m not ashamed to support Trump.” The result? The latest polls show Beruff trailing Sen. Marco Rubio by over 30 points ahead of the state’s Aug. 30 primary. Little Trump’s latest indignity came from the man himself, who said he’s supporting Rubio.
In Colorado, another Senate GOP hopeful is having a different problem. Darryl Glenn has already made it through the state’s primary to challenge Sen. Michael Bennet in November. But declaring it his “personal responsibility to deliver Colorado for Donald Trump,” and speaking on Trump’s behalf at the GOP convention in Cleveland seem only to have dragged Glenn backward in the battleground state.
An early July Harper poll showed him within 6 points of Bennet, but his slide has mirrored Trump’s in the state. Glenn was trailing Bennet by 15 in NBC’s most recent poll, where Trump trails Hillary Clinton by 13.
To the east in North Carolina, Sen. Richard Burr was always assumed to have a close race for re-election in November, if only because President Barack Obama won the state in 2008 (but lost it in 2012). So it came as a surprise when Burr became one of the few Republican incumbent senators in a contested election to go full-Trump early on. Even as most of his GOP colleagues were ducking into elevators to avoid discussing the party nominee, Burr said was both supportive of Trump and would campaign with him.
But as Trump’s chances in the Tar Heel State have darkened, so have the senator’s. Roll Call’s Nathan Gonzalez just demoted Burr’s race to “Tilts Republican,” while Charlie Cook has knocked it down from “Lean Republican” to a toss-up.
On the House side, the most unabashed Trump supporters with Democratic challengers in November, from Rep. Lee Zeldin in New York to Darrell Issa in California, now top the DCCC’s target list, thanks in large part to their early, full embrace of Trump, and his ongoing, headline-grabbing attacks. While Trump continues to rail against Washington, Congress, and GOP leaders, the association isn’t paying off for the congressional Republicans supporting him.
If anyone is wondering how Trump will affect down-ballot Republicans in November, they can stop guessing — it's already happened. Up and down the ticket, Republicans are finding that Trump is, in fact, the worst kind of nominee possible for a political party: a personality-driven phenomenon without an ideological bone in his body.
Without a larger governing philosophy to support or values to stand by, many of those who embraced him early on have found their own fortunes sinking along with his, while those trying to keep him at arms’ length can’t get out of his shadow. It turns out that the Trump magic isn’t transferable, but the Trump stink won’t wash off.