By Monday, his rhetorical contortions about Donald Trump were driving the news instead.
The first-term Republican senator, in an interview with a local Wisconsin radio show , said he intends to support the presumptive GOP nominee but declined to say he endorsed him. That raised the hackles of his critics.
“To me, support versus endorse are two totally different things,” Johnson said.
A spokesman for the senator said the incumbent’s stance toward Trump had not changed — he has always intended to support the GOP nominee — and that the hubbub over his comments was exclusive to Washington, away from actual Wisconsin voters.
[What’s a Vulnerable Republican to Do?]
But it nonetheless underscored the challenge now facing many Senate Republican candidates , as they try to steer their campaigns away from Trump but often find themselves caught in the billionaire mogul’s media-driven vortex.
For many of these Republicans, their ability to win may depend on making their campaigns about anything other than the party’s new standard-bearer .
Polls show that Trump’s unpopularity is pervasive, and Democrats have embarked on a sustained effort to link down-ballot GOP candidates to him.
[How Senate Republican Campaigns Will Handle Trump]
One thing is clear: the GOP campaigns won’t suffer for a lack of trying. This week alone, Senate Republicans have undertaken a strong effort to push Trump out of their races.
In Pennsylvania, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey holds press conferences to condemn his opponent’s support of “sanctuary cities.” In New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte’s campaign has attacked her opponent for holding another Washington fundraiser.
And in Arizona, John McCain’s campaign has targeted his likely Democratic foe, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, in a hard-hitting ad that focuses on President Barack Obama’s health care law. It was the first ad from the McCain campaign aimed at the general election.
“While Kirkpatrick is proud to put us at risk, John McCain is leading the fight to stop Obamacare,” the ad says .
[Senate GOP Campaigns Prepare for the Worst: Trump]
Republicans say these initiatives fulfill their strategic mantra: keep it local, and keep it focused on their opponent. Johnson, for example, has made campaign stops across Wisconsin for weeks to highlight local issues that intersect with national policy, like a charter-school program in Milwaukee.
“Most of the time that we’re traveling the state,” said a battleground Republican operative. “We’re not swept over by Trump questions like we are in the national media.“
A national strategy
National Republicans are also entering the fray with a more nationally minded strategy. They’re trying to prove that, when it comes to the presidential race, turnabout is fair play.
[Hillary Clinton is Too Big to Fail]
The National Republican Senatorial Committee this week will launch a new ad in the District of Columbia media market, attacking Hillary Clinton as untrustworthy and the face of dysfunctional Washington. (The ad is backed by a small $50,000 buy.)
The move is part of an emerging strategy from the GOP, in which Republicans link Democrats to their own likely presidential nominee. Polls indicate that Clinton, if better regarded than Trump , is still deeply unpopular.
GOP strategists say they hope that because Clinton — unlike Trump — is such a conventional nominee for her party , voters will be more likely to care about her links to down-ballot Democratic candidates.
“You’re going to see a lot more of us tying Democratic candidates to Hillary,” said Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the NRSC. “Her numbers in these states is the most unreported story of the last month — how toxic she is.”
[Republicans Couldn’t Muster the Honor to Fight Trump]
Republicans concede that shifting the conversation away from Trump won’t be easy. A GOP operative says that five reporters from the same news outlet recently asked her questions about Trump’s effect on Senate candidates on the same day.
It’s hard to avoid questions, but Republicans say they have been dealing with Trump’s intrusion into their races since the fall. That might not be ideal, but it has given their campaigns plenty of time to learn how to deflect questions about the presidential candidate.
“We’ve been in the preseason on this for a long time,” said one operative working on a battleground Senate race. “So now we’ve just suited up for the game.”
Democrats not worried
For months, Democrats have built their campaigns on tying Republican candidates to Trump. And the party’s strategists laugh off suggestions that Republicans will find a way to ignore Trump.
Kirkpatrick’s own campaign released a new digital, bilingual ad Tuesday as a de facto rebuttal to the McCain attack. In it, the longtime Arizona Republican’s rhetoric on immigration and Latinos was compared unfavorably to Trump’s.
[Why Trump Could Do Lasting Damage to the GOP With Latinos]
Democrats say that their own campaigns will not be focused entirely on Trump. But the likely GOP nominee does attract a lot of attention, they say, and gives their party a golden opportunity on favorable key issues.
“Every little thing that Trump says, everything he does, every position he takes, it’s just going to shine a light on the out-of-touch position that Kelly Ayotte, Rob Portman, and Pat Toomey have,” said Sadie Weiner, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.