WASHINGTON — A series of setbacks for President Donald Trump has left some Republican operatives and donors fearing that the race for the White House is slipping away and proposing that the party shift focus to protecting seats in Congress.
Vulnerable GOP candidates are currently tethered to an unpopular president, fighting for survival against a potential blue wave after Trump’s widely panned performance in the first debate, his coronavirus diagnosis and his erratic behavior on economic stimulus talks.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s lead over Trump has topped 10 points in the NBC News national polling average. Across the country, Trump is hemorrhaging support among seniors and faces widespread defections among white college graduates, particularly women.
“The president has had possibly the worst two-week stretch that a candidate could have going into the final month of an election,” Ken Spain, a Republican strategist, said.
Spain, who worked for the party’s House election arm during Barack Obama’s blowout 7 percentage point first presidential victory, said he sees “echoes of 2008” in the current landscape, with growing chances of a tsunami that drowns congressional Republican candidates.
“In 2016, the president was a buoy. In 2020, he’s more of an anchor. There’s no question there are going to be losses down the ballot,” he said. “Six months ago, Republicans were hoping that we would be talking about Senate races in Colorado, Arizona and Maine. Instead, there’s concern about the potential outcomes in states like South Carolina, Georgia and Kansas.”
The down-ballot panic intensified with the recognition that Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was in danger as a raft of polls since summer showed his race in a dead heat with Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison. The Cook Political Report this week shifted the race rating from "Lean Republican" to "Toss Up."
Some party financiers fear the presidency is slipping out of reach and want the party to shift its resources to protecting seats in Congress to limit any progressive ambitions of a Biden presidency.
“If Biden is truly close to being double digits ahead, then there’s no chance that we hold the Senate,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor and an oil and gas executive who supports Trump. “If 2016 was a vote against Hillary (Clinton) and Trump has turned 2020 into a referendum against him, I wonder if some of these Senate candidates can hold on."
Brendan Buck, a Republican consultant, who was a top adviser to former House Speaker Paul Ryan, said it would be a rational response to steer resources to saving endangered incumbents.
“We need to protect the Senate and limit the damage in the House,” he said. “They can’t say it out loud, but the president is likely toast, and a Republican Senate can serve as a check on a Biden administration and Democratic House. Republicans also need to keep the House in reach of flipping it back in 2022.”
Biden grows bullish about Texas
If Republicans are struggling to protect an incumbent in the deep-red Palmetto State, it means the seat of Sen. John Cornyn in electoral vote-rich Texas may not necessarily be safe either, along with about a dozen others in a cycle in which Democrats need to pick up four seats to secure control, or three if they win the White House.
Biden’s campaign appears more bullish on Texas, purchasing $6.3 million in ads on TV and radio in the Lone Star State from Wednesday through Election Day, according to Advertising Analytics. His wife, Jill Biden, plans to travel to the state next week, the campaign announced Friday, with an itinerary a Biden campaign spokesperson said would include stops in Dallas, Houston and El Paso.
“Trump is definitely helping us,” Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman and presidential candidate, told NBC News. “They have been neck and neck for weeks now, and Biden’s chances are only improving after his and Kamala (Harris)’s strong debate performances.”
O’Rourke, who came within 3 points of winning a Texas Senate race in 2018, insists the state and its 38 electoral votes are in play, and has been pleading with the Democrats to invest more there.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made a rare break from the president by saying Thursday in Kentucky that he hasn't visited the White House since Aug. 6 because “their approach to how to handle this [coronavirus] is different from mine and what I insisted that we do in the Senate, which is to wear a mask and practice social distancing.”
The remark was interpreted by some as a signal to Republican senators to feel free to distance themselves from Trump on the coronavirus, an issue on which the president's approach has sparked broad national disapproval.
Although the political landscape matters, so do candidates. Republicans are growing optimistic about holding the seat of Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, which has long been seen as a bellwether state for Senate control, after Democratic candidate Cal Cunningham admitted to exchanging romantic text messages with a woman who isn’t his wife.
But not every GOP candidate faces besieged opponents.
In the House, party operatives who long believed they’d gain seats are now confronting the prospect that their minority might shrink. Cook Political Report’s forecast gives Democrats a better than even chance of expanding their House majority.
The Trump campaign dismissed the gloomy assessments of the presidential race, noting that polls also showed Trump trailing in October 2016.
“There were almost identical national and state polls in October 2016 and if they were to be believed, we’d be talking about Hillary Clinton’s re-election right now. This election is a clear choice between President Trump’s record of success and Joe Biden’s 47 years of failure,” Trump spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in an email.
In 2016, Clinton's lead ballooned to about 7 points in the mid-October RealClearPolitics average before tightening again to 3 points on the eve of the election. She won the popular vote by 2 points but lost the Electoral College. Biden has consistently outpaced her campaign-year showings in head-to-head surveys against Trump.
Spain said Republicans shouldn't bank on a 2016-style late shift again, and that endangered candidates need to “change the dynamics on the ground” by showing independence.
He said it won't be easy.
“The burden is now placed on Senate and House Republicans to establish their own personal brands and differentiate themselves,” Spain said. “But in most cases, Republicans have tethered themselves to the president.”