Should Democrats use Donald Trump against other Republicans or use other Republicans against Trump?
That question is dividing Democrats this year, as Hillary Clinton’s campaign has sought to drive a wedge between Trump as the GOP standard bearer at the same time Democrats in down ballot races have been more interested in chaining the unpopular Trump to their Republican opponents.
Now, with Trump underwater in almost every poll and Republicans retreating from him, Clinton’s campaign and its surrogates are aligning their own message with that of down-ballot Democrats.
"Donald Trump is becoming more unhinged by the day, and that is increasing prospects for Democrats further down the ballot,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said Monday while announcing millions of dollars in new aid for House and Senate candidates.
Clinton, who for months held her fire on the GOP, has yet to adopt the new message. But she’s been off the trail in recent days while preparing for Wednesday’s debate, leaving surrogates to make Republicans take ownership of Trump.
President Obama marked the change last week when he blamed the GOP for creating Trump while campaigning for Clinton in Ohio.
Republicans “stood silently by out of political expediency,” Obama said.
“They don’t get credit for, at the very last minute, when finally the guy that they nominated and they endorsed and they supported is caught on tape saying things that no decent person would even think, much less say, much less brag about, much less laugh about or joke about, much less act on,” he said.
That’s a very different message from the one Obama delivered during the Democratic National Convention in July, when he praised Ronald Reagan, called the GOP “The Party of Lincoln,” and said Trump’s message “wasn’t particularly Republican — and it sure wasn’t conservative.”
The pivot is a sign that Clinton is confident enough in her own prospects to start thinking about what comes after Nov. 8, when she’ll need a friendly Senate to approve her nominees, and would like to help Democrats make inroads in the House. Her advisers feel they’ve made Trump as radioactive as possible, so now is the time to use him against his colleagues.
Clinton’s campaign will still try to make moderate Republican voters feel comfortable supporting her, an aide said, but the summer’s attempt to persuade undecided voters to come her way has been superseded by the fall’s need to mobilize the base.
“My only wish is they would have started this a while ago,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, reflecting the frustration of many other Democrats. “But better late than never.”
Indeed, some Democrats fear Clinton’s old strategy encouraged split-ticket voting.
A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed a majority of voters are more interested in backing a House Republican candidate who would be a check-and-balance to Hillary Clinton than a Democratic candidate who would help her enact her agenda. Meanwhile, House Democrats have yet to match Clinton’s margin in polls of generic partisan candidates.
The divide between Clinton and her party’s congressional leadership was evident from the very beginning of the general election, after Trump left a meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan without securing an endorsement.
Clinton’s campaign reacted by declaring Ryan the newest member of a "chorus of Republicans” rejecting Trump. Reid said “the Republican leadership in both houses are marching in lockstep with Donald Trump.”
The Clinton campaign’s strategy “to disaggregate Trump from down ballot Republicans ... just doesn't work from the party side,” the Democratic National Committee’s communications director complained in an email sent to his boss in May, which was published by Wikileaks. “We would basically have to throw out our entire frame that the GOP made Trump through years of divisive and ugly politics."
Now, Clinton aides and Capitol Hill strategists said they’re coordinating more closely, both on message and in more tactical issues, like divvying up voters to target in their mobilization efforts.
“We had to run on parallel tracks for a long time, not necessarily in contrast but apart, and now we're finally in sync,” said a Democratic strategist working on House races who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss relations with the Clinton campaign.
Instead of trying to argue that all Republicans are as bad as Trump, which didn’t pass the smell test with more voters, Democrats — including the Clinton campaign — are arguing Republicans are being irresponsible in standing by Trump, and that it’s too late if they try to defect now.
“Republicans are in a real bind,” Mook said Monday. “For months, GOP members put their party ahead of the good of the country by refusing to take the step of condemning Donald Trump's outrageous and insulting rhetoric.”
As Democrats learned in the past two midterm elections, it can be near impossible for down-ballot candidates to separate themselves from the top of the ticket. Now Democrats are hoping to do to Republicans what they had done to them in 2010 and 2014.