Consequences of Trump Campaign's Performance Incite GOP Frustration

Priorities USA decision has Republicans worried extra ads could swing key races

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., speaks with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., left, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as they prepare to hold their press conference on military aid to Israel on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Republicans have grappled with Donald Trump’s lackluster ground game, his near-absence of TV ads, and the possibility that the GOP presidential nominee himself could personally attack their candidates at any time. 

But the latest consequence of Trump's uneven performance has the operatives who run these campaigns rolling their eyes in disbelief — and venting their frustration. 

On Tuesday, the well-funded Priorities USA said it would begin airing TV ads targeting Republican Sens. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. The Democratic super PAC, which had previously focused only on the presidential race, decided it could afford to spend on other races because Trump is trailing so far behind Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. 

Party strategists say incumbents like Toomey and Ayotte, both of whom are locked in tight races, can ill afford an extra barrage of ads, and they blamed Trump for failing to run competitively enough to keep the Democratic group occupied. 

“It’s put us all in a really tough position that we now have another opponent in the ring,” said Mark Dion, who runs a super PAC dedicated to helping Toomey. “We’ve been swimming upstream the entire time with the Trump anchor, and it gets harder and harder to keep your head above water.”

To GOP strategists, Priorities USA’s decision is the final indignity of an election that has seen them deal with a presidential nominee with toxic unpopularity and an unorthodox approach to campaigning. Many of them believed the party’s senators had done exceptionally well to overcome Trump’s foibles, in some cases over-performing the GOP nominee by nearly 10 points. 

But they worry that in the end, Trump could prove too much to overcome. Priorities USA, which has spent roughly $100 million so far, could push Democratic candidates over the top in the handful of races both sides currently see as neck-and-neck. (A spokesman for the group, whose leader was the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee last cycle, said it has not decided if it will spend additional money on Senate ads).

Republicans have already voiced deep concern that they’re being outspent in several key Senate races, including in Pennsylvania, where Republicans say the gap is already nearly $8 million large. 

“If Donald Trump was purposefully working to build a Democratic majority, he couldn’t be doing a better job,” said one GOP strategist working on Senate races, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the race. “A campaign so incompetent and a candidate so undisciplined — they’re on the verge of handing Hillary the White House and the Senate.“ 

One top Republican strategist compared the Trump-related challenges his party has faced to a scene in the movie “Forrest Gump,” when a double-amputee character named “Lieutenant Dan” clings to the mast of a small boat in the middle of a major storm while yelling at God to do his worst. 

“It’s us up on the mast, saying, ‘Is that all you got?’” the strategist said. 

In that movie, Lt. Dan went on to become the successful and rich owner of a fleet of Gulf Coast shrimp boats.

Senate Republicans aren’t sure if they’ll meet the same happy fate, although they maintain that the party is doing far better than anyone would have expected given Trump’s struggles. The party still hopes it can win highly competitive races in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Indiana, Nevada, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Florida.

They’re simply worried that one last push from Trump might prove one too many. 

“To have to deal with any additional headwinds at the end is unfortunate and just means they’re going to have to campaign even harder,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist. “I think everyone realizes these are going to be close races. We need all the support we can get for these candidates.”

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