Did We Overestimate Donald’s Drag On Republicans In The Senate?

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October 3, 2016 6:00 a.m.

At the Republican convention in Cleveland in July, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) spent one afternoon kayaking in the Cuyahoga River with wounded veterans instead of spinning out interviews in the media row at Quicken Loans Center.

There was good reason to keep his distance. At the time, Trump was down in the polls in Ohio, and Portman was just a few points ahead. That week, Trump gave an interview to the New York Times where he openly questioned the U.S. commitment to NATO. There was an unsuccessful floor fight to wrestle the nomination from Trump, and Trump’s wife Melania had just plagiarized Michelle Obama’s primetime speech convention speech as her own.

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The chances were real for Portman – as they were for Republican senators up for re-election across the country– that their fate would be inextricably tied to a wild man billionaire who seemed to be spouting off against decades-old foreign policy agreements without much regard for the damage he could do to those outside of his own race. Even Republican pundits warned, there was no way senators were going to be able to survive if Trump was losing at the top of the ticket by more than five or six points.

Democrats appeared to be certain to take back the Senate. They began to look to expand their map into places like Arizona and Iowa, where Republican Sens. John McCain and Chuck Grassley had deep ties to their constituents that had made them nearly untouchable.

With just a little more than a month to go until the general election, however, Republican incumbents appear to be a better place than many predicted.

“I do now see a path for Republicans,” said Cook Political Report analyst Jennifer Duffy. “It is not an easy path, but it is a path.”

To take back the Senate, Democrats need to win at least four seats and the White House to ensure they would have a tie breaker in the vice president. But they also could lose a seat in Nevada where Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is retiring. That means Democrats could be scrambling for five victories. They still look slated to pick up seats in Wisconsin and Illinois. At this point, their best chances for the other three pickups look to be through Indiana, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania or Missouri, all of which seemed to have tightened.

TPM”s Senate Scoreboard at the end of last week showed Democrats with 49 seats going their way and Republicans with 48. Three seats – Missouri, North Carolina and New Hampshire– were listed as toss ups.

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It’s “like a knife fight in a phone booth,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told reporters last week when briefing them about the future of the GOP majority.

Senate race observers point out that Trump’s own improvement in the polls between early August and mid-September, as he sought to stick to a script and moderate himself, provided some cushion for Republicans running below him.

In Pennsylvania, for example, Trump was once down by eight points in the state, a margin that even the most disciplined and prepared incumbents would have had a difficult time outrunning. But more recently TPM’s PollTracker Average has Trump down just 3.6 points and Toomey within striking distance of Democratic challenger Katie McGinty.

“This presidential race got much tighter. Donald has had a good month,” said Democratic pollster Josh Ulibarri.

Instead of dragging senators down in the polls, Trump is even outpacing some of his Republican incumbents. For example, in Missouri, TPM’s PollTracker Average shows Trump ahead of Clinton by almost 10 points while Republican Sen. Roy Blunt is only leading his Democratic challenger Jason Kander by one.

While Trump’s improvement has no doubt helped down ballot candidates keep races competitive, there is also evidence that voters may be actually distinguishing between Donald Trump and generic down ballot Republicans.

“I have always been doom and gloom on the Trump piece, and he is doing a little better. I also think voters are disconnecting his candidacy with that of Republican office holders,” said former NRSC Executive Director Rob Jesmer. “People are able to run their own campaign in a way I didn’t really think they would be able to.”

Experts agree that the dynamics of the races themselves – the quality of Democratic recruits in some places as well as Republicans’ own efforts to localize races early– have helped keep Trump from completely determining the fate of the Republican’s Senate majority.

“There is no coat drag when you get to Senate races,” Duffy said. “It comes down to candidates and campaigns that matter.”

In Nevada, Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV) began running ads early as he sought to succeed Reid, Democrat’s Senate leader. Heck is leading his Democratic opponent by more than 3 points in the TPM PollTracker Average, an impressive feat for a Republican in a state with a high Latino population whose presidential nominee has run a campaign highlighting the crimes of undocumented immigrants, attacking the “Mexican” heritage of a federal judge and disparaging a Venezuelan Miss Universe.

“Heck has done a great job localizing this race,” Ulibarri said. “That has helped him protect his image.”

In Ohio, where Portman ran his own shadow convention in July, he’s also been able to out-run Trump in the double digits. He is up by 13.5 points in his race, according to TPM’s PollTracker Average. Trump is up by half a point.

“We started 17 months ago to run a very aggressive grassroots campaign and it’s paying off,” Portman told TPM recently when asked about his success, but that doesn’t quite capture the full story.

Republican candidates have also benefitted from a few rocky Democratic recruits. No place is that clearer than in Ohio where Democrats picked former congressman and one-term Gov. Ted Strickland to be their nominee. Strickland, a 75-year-old candidate who lost his re-election bid for governor, has struggled to fundraise enough to defend himself against a bombardment of negative ads coming from Portman and his allies. Republicans have spent more than $32 million in support of Portman. Outside groups have spent roughly half of that on Strickland. And, at the beginning of the month, Democrats supporting Strickland delayed an ad buy for the candidate, a sign that even Democrats have begun to question his ability to win.

“I think he is a good Democrat for Ohio, but he lost his last campaign so it is weird for voters to fire someone and then hire him for a bigger job,” said Ulibarri.

Democrats still have several opportunities on the map, of course, and Martha McKenna, the former political director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee maintains that Democrats always expected this close of a battle for Senate control. She points out that Democrats are beginning to see their own new opportunities in Missouri and North Carolina.

“You don’t blow out Senate races very often,” McKenna said. “I think there is every reason for Democrats to remain confident because we have been making strong arguments.”

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