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For Republicans on the ballot in state elections, Donald Trump is more than their party’s presidential nominee: He’s a liability that could cost them their jobs and potentially their majorities in both the House and Senate.
In a presidential election year, the top of the ticket already plays a huge role in deciding votes down the ballot. In 2012, 94 percent of congressional districts elected representatives from the same party as the one the majority of their voters chose for president. Trump, 2016’s polarizing presumptive Republican nominee, could have an unusually large role in affecting down-ballot races. Trump is putting the GOP candidates, whether they’ve publicly come out in support for him or not, in a difficult position as they grapple with how to react to his inflammatory rhetoric and policies.
This fall, 34 Senate seats, 24 of them currently held by Republicans, and all 435 House seats, 247 of them held by Republicans, will be decided at the ballot box.
With nine senators currently securing the GOP’s upper chamber majority, the Senate is the obvious top target for Democrats hoping to regain some legislative control. Democrats say it’s too early to tell whether flipping the House is within reach — they’d need to flip 30 seats — but they’re hoping Trump’s spot atop the ticket can give them a shot.
Democrats say tying Trump to down-ballot Republicans is central to their hopes of reclaiming one or both houses of Congress. They argue it’ll pay dividends in a presidential election electorate that historically attracts more Democratic voters than Republicans.
Former President George W. Bush is coming out of political retirement to fundraise on behalf of endangered Republican senators. Republican GOP strategists insist their candidates will be able to hold their own despite the Trump-generated, larger-than-life controversies, but activists on both sides say it’s not going to be easy.
“Here’s what’s going to happen for you every day,” Republican strategist and fiery Trump critic Rick Wilson said. “Do you agree with this utterly racist whack-job thing? Do you agree? The Democrats are going to run ads against these guys without mercy."
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New York Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin talked himself in circles this month defending Trump after the candidate argued that an Indiana-born federal judge, Gonzalo Curiel, was biased because of his Mexican heritage. Zeldin, seeking re-election in the state’s 1st District in Long Island, acknowledged that Trump’s remarks were racist but said he’d still be supporting him in November, suggesting that President Barack Obama was the real racist.
“You can easily argue that the president of the United States is a racist with his policies and his rhetoric,” Zeldin said, rambling through an argument that Trump’s comments — but not Trump himself — were racist.
It’s not exactly the type of headline a Long Island Republican wants to read while up for re-election in a district that voted for Obama twice, and both his potential opponents pounced. Dave Calone declared the comments “absurd,” while Anna Throne-Holst held a campaign rally outside Zeldin’s office demanding an apology.
A few hundred miles south, Pennsylvania’s Brian Fitzpatrick — a Republican candidate running for the state’s open 8th Congressional District seat after his brother, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, announced he wouldn’t seek re-election due to a self-imposed four-term limit — dismissed Trump’s remarks about Curiel in a 12-word statement. It prompted headlines and criticism from his Democratic opponent, state Rep. Steve Santarsiero, much to the delight of the group working to defeat Fitzpatrick, the Democratic Congressional Caucus Committee.
“[Fitzpatrick] had such a lame response to Donald Trump that he has gotten local press against him, editorial boards against him. There’s a conversation about him already in June,” Kelly Ward, the DCCC’s executive director, said. “It’s laying the groundwork that Brian Fitzpatrick is not standing up to Trump and not against him, and it’s getting baked into the cake, and he won’t be able to separate from it later.”
For other Republican down-ballot candidates, this is just the beginning, Wilson warned.
Recalling a recent call with a senator up for re-election in the days after Trump’s controversial Curiel comments, Wilson said, “This person said to me, ‘I can’t believe I have to go defend this thing.’ Every question I’m getting from reporters [is about Curiel]. I said, ‘Well, that’s because you didn’t say Donald Trump should go blow it out of his a--.’”
Consider Sen. Chuck Grassley, the hugely popular Iowa Republican facing dipping approval ratings and a formidable challenger in Democrat Patty Judge.
"When it comes to Donald Trump, there are invertebrates that have shown more spine than Sen. Charles Grassley,” the Des Moines Register wrote this month in a stinging editorial criticizing Grassley for not condemning Trump more strongly for the Curiel remarks.
Wilson, who has consulted for tea party-aligned Republican candidates, said that some of the most effective ads he devised during the 2010 cycle simply tied his candidates’ Democratic opponents to President Obama, whose approval rating was down 20 points from the start of his first term to the 40s, after the passage of Obamacare on party lines.
“They tested fantastically, because people hated Barack Obama and Obamacare. In most places, he was 4 or 5 points underwater. In this case, Donald Trump is [30 points] underwater,” Wilson said.
Many Republicans, like vulnerable New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, are trying to walk a fine line with Trump, supporting the party’s nominee without embracing him personally.
Ayotte said she’d vote for Trump but wouldn’t endorse him, and she has spoken out against his most controversial remarks.
“To voters, it sounds like doublespeak. To voters, it sounds like a politician being a politician and wanting to have it both ways,” Ward of the DCCC said. “They can try all they want to separate from him, but they will not be able to in the mind of voters.”
Ayotte’s Democratic rival, the state’s popular Gov. Maggie Hassan, launched an attack ad that doesn’t once talk about Ayotte’s own policies. Instead, the ad shows national security experts blasting Trump’s foreign policy proposals, along with clips noting that Ayotte will support Trump. It closes on a brutal clip from a CNN interview in which Ayotte said she hadn’t actually watched Trump’s national security speech.
For their part, Republican strategists and organizers say they are encouraging clients and candidates to focus on their own races as much as they can.
"You have a race to win, and it’s not national, it’s back home,” Katie Martin, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s communications director, said.
“Republican senators are talking to voters like they’re running for sheriff. Every message is highly targeted and purposefully local,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Ward Baker wrote in a recent memo predicting big wins in November. He stressed that they’re prepared for the Trump presidential campaign, pointing to a secret memo the Washington Post reported on last year stressing the lessons learned by Trump’s success.
"As Democrats spend the heart of the campaign hoping for the best, we will execute a strategy that has been in the works for a year [and] a half," Baker wrote. "Republicans are writing the book on how to win in an unpredictable environment, and we will hold our Senate majority in November."
Republican strategist John Brabender is advising his Senate and gubernatorial candidates this cycle to "avoid [Trump] completely" and try to focus entirely on their own campaigns. Brabender said the best strategy is to portray Trump as a better alternative to presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
"It’s better under that context," he said. "I think you’re going to hear that a lot."
The NRCC’s Martin insists the committee’s message isn’t any different with Trump at the top of the ticket – that the NRCC has long advised candidates to focus almost exclusively on their own races. “At the end of the day, that’s not something that’s unique to this cycle,” she said.
But there’s never been a presidential nominee so unpopular: 7 in 10 Americans view Trump unfavorably, according to the ABC News/Washington Post poll released Thursday.
Some Republicans have split from their party’s nominee altogether. Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, running for re-election in a largely blue state, had backed Trump but revoked his endorsement after the Curiel comments.
"I cannot and will not support my party's nominee for president, regardless of the political impact on my candidacy or the Republican Party," he said in a statement.
The attack from Kirk’s Democratic rival was swift: “What took so long?” Rep. Tammy Duckworth fired off in a statement. "Apparently for Mark Kirk, it’s acceptable to refer to Mexicans as rapists; to propose banning Muslims from entering the country; to call women fat pigs and dogs; to mock a reporter’s disability; and to insult just about everyone who doesn’t look like Donald Trump.”
Brabender said Kirk was better positioned to distance himself from Trump than other GOP incumbents.
“In Illinois, tactically, it’s a little easier to do, because there’s so many more moderate, independent-leaning Republicans,” Brabender explained. But Kirk is also now in a political no-man’s land – forgoing the nominee risks alienating Trump’s supporters, who make up a big part of the conservative base in 2016.
Republicans are quick to note that their unpopular nominee has company on the other side: Clinton struggles with her own ratings, with 55 percent of all Americans viewing her unfavorably, according to the Washington Post poll.
“It’s not like their candidate is out of the woods,” Brabender said. “It’d be a mistake to see it as a Republican problem -- I think it’s a Democratic problem as well.”
Still, Clinton’s favorability has been inching up in recent weeks as the Democratic Party has begun to unite around her candidacy after a long primary battle with rival Sen. Bernie Sanders. At the same time, Republican lawmakers seem to be more and more uncomfortable with Trump as their standard-bearer.
The discomfort intensified in the wake of the deadly mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, when Trump congratulated himself on his past statements on terror, doubled down on his calls to ban all Muslims from entering the country and suggested that Obama was somehow sympathetic to terrorists.
The silence -- and dodges -- was perhaps most telling from two senators up for re-election. Consider Pat Toomey, the Pennsylvania Republican who’s already considered one of the most vulnerable senators in 2016, who told NBC News he “didn’t follow it closely,” while North Carolina’s Sen. Richard Burr, another vulnerable senator, suggested a reporter “take that up with the Trump campaign.”