Senate Republican campaigns are now thinking in practical terms about what a Donald Trump-led ticket would mean for their own down-ballot efforts, increasingly certain that they’ll be running alongside him this fall. The early assessment? All is not lost, but they have ample reason for uncertainty — and fear.
“It will be a complete and total disaster,” said Rob Jesmer, a former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “I’m not saying people cannot win with him at top of the ticket, but remember how challenging Todd Akin was? That would look like child’s play compared to what we’re about to deal with with Trump.” (Akin was the failed 2012 Missouri Senate Republican candidate of "legitimate rape" infamy.)
Many top Republicans have worried that Donald Trump would imperil their slim majority in the Senate. But for the operatives actually working to hold control of the upper chamber, Trump’s march to the nomination — which continued Tuesday with a string of victories — raises a whole set of more granular questions about their campaigns’ mechanics.
Among them: Can GOP campaigns in battleground states count on Trump to run a top-flight ground game? Will his campaign share voter data? Can they count on the provocative reality TV star to even endorse his fellow Republicans on the ballot, especially those incumbents — such as Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey — who endorsed a different Republican presidential candidate?
Above all, however, they must answer one question: Can they support a nominee who is already deeply unpopular with swing voters, or will they risk the wrath of Trump’s base and defect from their party’s ticket? Usually, these aren’t questions that down-ballot candidates need to ask about their presidential nominee. But Trump’s erratic style and unconventional campaign means that Senate campaigns can’t rely on the old rulebook.
“The honest answer is no one knows right now,” said one Republican strategist working on a Senate campaign, who like many Roll Call interviewed for this story, requested anonymity to speak candidly. “Everyone is heading for fire exits not knowing the answer.”
Some Republican strategists are optimistic that, given his standout appeal to working-class voters and Hillary Clinton's unpopularity, Trump still has a fighting chance to perform well in the general election.
But the GOP doesn’t have much room for error. Republicans hold a 54-46 advantage in the Senate, meaning that if Democrats’ win the White House in 2016, the party can afford to lose only three seats to hold the majority. It’s a tall task in a year in which many Republican incumbents, such as Illinois Sen. Mark S. Kirk, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson and Toomey, are seeking re-election in states President Barack Obama won twice.
Many of those battleground-state candidates were expecting to build a ground game with the help of the well-funded presidential effort. But few know if Trump’s campaign, which has forgone much of the voter-outreach programs typical of successful campaigns during the GOP primary, plans to build such an effort.
“His organization is less that what we normally see from presidential candidates because he hasn’t needed it so far," said one Republican operative. It’s not even clear if Trump — with a well-known history of personal score settling — will back a candidate such as Toomey, who endorsed Marco Rubio after the Iowa caucuses.
“Once he has the nomination, does he start to play nicer with Republicans and spend more time attacking Democrats? I don’t know,” said the Republican operative.
It’s not as if Republicans haven’t prepared for Trump — the National Republican Senatorial Committee, for instance, wrote a memo last year detailing how its campaigns would handle the real estate tycoon on top of the ticket, and officials at the group have met almost weekly since March to discuss the effect their party’s eventual presidential nominee will have on Senate races. Most recently, Senate candidates and GOP leaders have had to distance themselves from David Duke and the KKK after Trump failed to do so clearly.
Questions about Trump’s statements will only intensify as he moves closer to the Republican nomination. (Few interviewed expected he would tone down his rhetoric in a general election.) It will be up the Senate Republican candidates to find ways to both distance themselves from their party’s presidential nominee while talking about issues — such as the economy and national security — they think will persuade swing voters.
“There’s going to be one outrageous thing said after another,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist working with the New Hampshire state GOP amid that state’s pivotal Senate race. “Republicans are going to have to repeatedly denounce him. You cannot remain silent when he says these things.”
It’s a favorable scenario for Senate Democrats, who are already pushing candidates to answer whether they would support Trump as the nominee. In a new twist, officials at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee say they plan to link questions about Trump to the Supreme Court vacancy. The message to a party that has said the next president should fill the opening: How could you let someone like Trump make such an important decision?
Democrats are confident that with Trump at the top of the ticket, Republicans won’t find a way to escape the political fallout no matter their strategy.
“Ask red-state Democrats from 2014 how it worked to stay hyper-local and distance yourself from an unpopular leader of your party,” said one Democratic strategist. “Oh wait. You can’t. Because they all lost.”
Republicans say their Senate candidates don’t need to answer now whether they would support Trump’s bid for the presidency in a general election. But eventually, they will have no choice. All of the operatives interviewed by Roll Call acknowledged that, as of now, they weren’t sure if it was the smarter play to stick with Trump or abandon him.
“They’re going to have a little time to say whether they’re going to support the nominee. They’re going to be able to run it out to the convention,” said Jesmer. “But at some point and time, you’re going to have to say you’re for or against that person.”