Republicans hoping to hold onto their seats in the Senate are already running their races publicly like Donald Trump is invisible — and hoping voters don’t make the connection.
“Listen, it doesn’t matter who is the presidential candidate, you’ve got to run your own campaign in your state and do it with the issues that are important to the people in your state,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) who is fighting to win his seventh Senate term in November.
Grassley is one of nearly a dozen potentially vulnerable Republicans facing re-election this fall who have to contend with Trump at the top of their ticket. He has won at least 60 percent of the vote every time he’s run for re-election, but he is facing what may be his hardest election yet.
“I’m running my own race” is a common refrain for down-ballot candidates when a party leader casts a dark shadow over the election. It was the strategy Democrats deployed in the 2014 midterm election when Obama was unpopular in the South. How did that go? Republicans gained nine Senate seats and retook the majority that cycle.
“I think Trump is even more challenging to deal with than Obama,” one Republican strategist told TPM on the condition of anonymity so he could speak freely on the state of the election. “Honestly, we are in such uncharted waters. We have never had anyone like this before ever. I cannot think of anything that is even remotely close to this. Everyone has to feel this thing out on their own.”
Trump is broadly unpopular, has alienated minority voters, and is struggling even with Republican-aligned married women, polling shows. A shocking poll in Georgia earlier this month revealed Trump was in a dead heat with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after years of voters in the state electing Republicans. His coattails are so perilous he’s making Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) a bit nervous.
In an interview last week, Isakson wouldn’t say whether he would campaign alongside Trump even though Trump won his state’s primary and Isakson’s seat is considered a safe one, according to the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
“I’m gonna campaign in Georgia for my re-election and do everything I can to keep a majority here. [What] that is will end up being what happens when it happens,” Isakson said.
On Capitol Hill, it’s clear members would rather not talk Trump. They try hard not to echo his name and grow irritated with reporters asking repeated questions about what he means for the party and for their races.
“I don’t know,” said Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) of what Trump would have to do to be a better ally to senators. “Mr. Trump will say what he wants to say.”
Even major Republican fundraisers are showing signs they will try to ignore Trump and instead focus on saving the Senate. The Koch brothers have indicated they’ll invest heavily in preserving the GOP’s Senate majority, but may chose to stay on the sidelines of the presidential race all together.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is charged with getting Republicans elected to the Senate and keeping them there, said “that had not occurred to me” when asked if Trump was going to be helping Republican senators fund-raise. Typically, a presidential nominee is a big help in raking in money. (The NRSC did sent out an e-mail Friday asking for donations that included a reference to Trump’s Thursday meeting with Hill Republicans.)
On the trail, however, senators may opt to go it alone.
“Once we get into the general election campaign, I’ll differentiate myself based upon how I voted in the past if that is different than what Donald Trump aspires to,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) who has publicly said he supports Trump for president.
Most Republicans in the Senate are already trying to make there elections about local issues Trump isn’t active on. For Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) there is a opioid epidemic and Senate legislation to campaign on. McCain has spent considerable time back home highlighting his work on reforming veterans’ health care after the Phoenix-based VA scandal.
Trump’s word salad speeches, pandering tone and impromptu policy proposals that almost appear to be manufactured on the spot, all worry Republican strategists and senators whose fates are tied to Trump’s performance in the polls. When it became clear that Trump was emerging as the likely nominee, political prognosticators like the Cook Political Report, moved several races in the Democrats’ direction.
Unlike disciplined nominees of the past, senators’ futures are now inextricably linked to an inexperienced candidate who talks about raising the minimum wage and tweets photographs of himself eating a taco salad on Cinco De Mayo and calls that Hispanic outreach.
Republican senators say publicly they are prepared to stand on their own records, but it’s no secret that they wish Trump would change his tone and make their elections easier.
In a previously leaked NRSC document, executive director Ward Baker warned candidates and campaigns that it was important for senators to quickly distance themselves if necessary from any of Trump’s more controversial statement, an exercise that could prove exhausting if Trump’s primary past is prologue.
During a Thursday meeting with Senate leaders, Republican lawmakers confronted Trump directly about his tone and how he might adjust it.
“I offered to help him,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX). “I come obviously from a border state. I was fortunate enough to win the Hispanic vote in 2014, and I said I’d be glad to share with you my experience and observations because obviously that is an important part of the voters in 2016.”
Cornyn said he believes Trump “recognized the impact of the presidential candidate on down ballot races.”
“He looked forward to being helpful where he could,” Cornyn said noting polls where Trump was performing well in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. “He also understands that in some places, people may choose to run independently and not join up with the presidential [nominee].”
As it turns out, there could be a lot more of those senators than the ones ready to join arm-in-arm with Trump and jump into the 2016 election fray.