In North Carolina, Richard Burr is planning to turn out voters who might hurt the rest of the GOP ticket. In Wisconsin, Ron Johnson is prepared to use Tuesday’s presidential primaries to identify unexpected supporters. And in Ohio, Rob Portman is building a ground game that can excel without national assistance.
Across the 2016 map, the rise of Donald Trump has compelled Senate Republican candidates to prepare like never before, convinced that only an extraordinary effort can overcome a politically toxic presidential nominee like the New York billionaire. In interviews with more than a dozen top Senate GOP operatives, they outlined a plan to hold their slim majority by identifying highly unusual numbers of split-ticket voters while constructing a large and robust voter-outreach operation.
If recent history is a guide, it won’t be enough: Many of the same Republican strategists concede that Trump’s presence atop the GOP ticket will likely end their majority. One strategist said the party has an 80 percent chance of losing the Senate with Trump. Another put the odds at 75 percent.
But others are more confident that their own diligent preparations —coupled with the unique circumstances of this election — will let them overcome long odds.
“The days of the Senate campaigns being a two or three-million dollar operation are long gone,” said Kevin McLaughlin, deputy executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “These are massive, complex, expensive operations. They’re uniquely qualified in this environment to operate on their own.”
Senate Republicans are up against a decades-long trend during which down-ballot campaigns have become mirrors of the national political climate, with even well-known senators unable to form their own electoral coalition separate from the incumbent president or the presidential campaign. In 2014, well-known and well-funded red-state Democratic incumbents like Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana lost their re-election bids miserably.
For all the boasting about their sophisticated campaigns, Republicans will also face a set of well-funded Senate Democratic efforts, too, whose own work could cancel out efforts to split with Trump. Democrats have already spent months linking Republican candidates with Trump, on everything from his policy positions to his incendiary rhetoric. The party has yet to also find an answer to its biggest Trump-related challenge: How can its candidates distance themselves from the Republican front-runner without alienating his core supporters?
Senate Republicans can lose no more than a net of five seats to retain a majority — four if the GOP presidential nominee loses. The party is especially vulnerable to losses this year because many senators up for re-election in battleground states are Republican.
But some Republicans think that, if the individual campaigns are going to matter more than usual, running so many incumbents might actually be helpful. Sitting senators have been preparing for re-election for years, stockpiling cash and developing plans for extensive voter outreach. Portman, for instance, touts his seven field offices across Ohio, a squad of 850 high-school and college-aged volunteers, and an expected, by this week, 1.5 million voter contacts.
It’s helped the Ohio Republican find 52,000 self-identified Democrats who consider the Iranian nuclear deal their top issue, the campaign says, the kind of small voter bloc that can help Portman cobble together a non-traditional — but winning — coalition.
“If we can’t get a majority of those Democrats to vote for Rob Portman, I should be fired,” said Corry Bliss, Portman’s campaign manager. “It’s doing that 10 times on 10 different issues in 10 different parts of the state. That’s the name of the game.”
Many of this year’s incumbents have raised a great deal of money, including Portman ($12.7 million on hand to start the year), Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey ($9.6 million), and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte ($6.3 million in a small state).
Another incumbent, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, is using Tuesday’s home-state presidential primary as a testing ground to identify unconventional swing voters. By gauging the results in both race’s contests and polling targeted areas, a campaign that hopes to identify voters who want a non-traditional candidate regardless of ideology.
Such a preference could apply to even some supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a voter bloc the Johnson campaign plans to target with a message that the Republican — who never held elected office before joining the U.S. Senate in 2011 — is the true outsider in his race against former three-term Sen. Russ Feingold.
“This person is ripe for us to pick up, not because of conservative ideology, but because they hate D.C.,” said a Johnson official, who noted that the campaign is already taking advantage of a voter database collected during Scott Walker’s three separate campaigns. “They want to vote for the outsider.”
Identifying split-ticket voters is essential, especially given Trump’s deep unpopularity. Nearly three-quarters of all women had an unfavorable opinion of the New York billionaire, according to a March survey from CNN/ORC. Early tests of head-to-head matchups with Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, show him losing by nearly double-digits.
Convincing someone who votes for Clinton to back a Republican senator isn’t easy — Democrats, for example, won big down the ballot in both of President Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. But Republicans believe they have the right combination of tools, message and environment to widen the gap this year.
Their argument, in a nutshell: Trump’s reality TV star profile and well-known breaks from party orthodoxy give candidates a bigger-than-usual opening to separate from him. Clinton’s own deep unpopularity (a Bloomberg survey from March found 53 percent of voters disapprove of her), meanwhile, lets them make the case that even if they don’t want Trump to be president, they shouldn’t give the former secretary of state control of Congress.
“The key is keeping the focus on Hillary and what unchecked power means for her,” said Glen Bolger, a GOP pollster working on the campaigns of Burr and other Republican candidates this year.
Senate Republicans also believe the increased sophistication of campaigns, which rely on ever more advanced analytics to assess the electorate, will help them persuade split-ticket voters. They believe they already have proof: In March, Sen. Richard Shelby was able to easily win re-election despite his home state of Alabama simultaneously giving Trump a big victory. That’s evidence, Republicans say, the senator’s precise voter targeting was successful in convincing voters to back a longtime incumbent at the same time they preferred an outsider like Trump.
“Successful primary campaigns must be able to identify voters much more specifically than general elections typically do because the universe is smaller and their differences are often undetectable,” said Josh Holmes, former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
“What we’re seeing this cycle is many Republican Senate campaigns extrapolating that same approach out to the broader general electorate.”
Already, some of the big-spending, Republican-aligned outside groups like American Crossroads have signaled they plan to redirect money they planned to spend on the presidential election into Senate races instead, The Washington Post reported in March. Republican officials also expect the campaigns themselves will see a fundraising bump, as donors dissatisfied with Trump look to fortify the party elsewhere.
Apart from TV ads, Senate campaigns are also focused on building their own ground game to reach voters. Among many of them, there is a pervasive doubt that Trump, who has thus far failed to build much of a grassroots voter-contact operation in his primary campaign, will decide to do so in a general election.
In North Carolina, the Burr campaign is building its own ground game to help potentially separate itself from not only Trump, but Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who is also running for re-election. The campaign is busy now identifying voters who would support the second-term senator but neither of the other two Republicans.
“I want to turn them out,” said Paul Shumaker, Burr’s longtime strategist. “McCrory is not gonna want to turn them out, and Trump won’t want to turn them out. But we want to.”
Even if Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and not Trump, wins the nomination, many Republican operatives say the steps being taken now will still be necessary for a candidate they view as another general election liability. Polls show Cruz has a lead in Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary, a victory that could signal a change in momentum of the race toward July’s convention in Cleveland.
The GOP’s reliance on well-funded incumbent campaigns isn’t without its pitfalls. For one, several key Senate races — in Colorado, Florida, and Nevada — don’t feature a Republican incumbent. In the Sunshine State, the Aug. 30 primary will likely leave the GOP nominee broke less than 10 weeks before Election Day, unable to do the work necessary to weather an anti-Trump wave.
Even the candidates who do run excellent campaigns must still, at the end of the race, contend with a potentially toxic political environment. Senate GOP operatives have confidence they can run a good campaign; they’re less sure it will end in victory.
As Bolger, the pollster, put it: “A preponderance of recent elections say the environment takes you down.”