Not since the Barry Goldwater era have GOP congressional incumbents looked so vulnerable in the face of a coming political apocalypse. With Toxic Donald Trump heading for the top of the GOP ticket after his win in Indiana, Republicans will soon be donning hazmat suits in hopes of surviving November.
No incumbent House or Senate member currently listed as Vulnerable in the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call race ratings has endorsed the bilious billionaire. But nervous incumbents have been trying everything from a tentative embrace to tepid independence in an effort to position themselves amid the Trump tumult.
Asked about running with Trump just before the April 5 Wisconsin primary, Ron Johnson replied, “Stump with Trump? Just because it rhymes: It would be the Ronald [and] the Donald.”
In contrast, Pennsylvania’s Patrick J. Toomey went out of his way to reveal that he had voted for the now former candidate Ted Cruz — and not Trump — in his state’s April 26 primary. And, as my colleague Patricia Murphy pointed out, John McCain, facing a tough race in Arizona, will manage to skip the Republican convention eight years after he was nominated for president.
But these are temporary expedients. Any Democratic media consultant who won’t be making TV ads to exploit the Trump connection should try less challenging campaign assignments, like hand-painting signs for rallies. Even McCain — cruelly derided by Trump as a loser for getting shot down over Vietnam — will probably end up being linked to his party’s 2016 nominee.
So how does a Republican run for cover?
There are no guaranteed strategies other than maybe using a time machine to go back to last fall to get the GOP super PAC billionaires to take down Trump while they still had a shot. But here are four options for Republicans wishing they were running with someone generic — like Marco Rubio — at the top of the ticket.
The Full Christie
The play here would be to accept what you can’t change even if that means campaigning with a vitriolic egomaniac who is ill-prepared to be handed the nuclear codes.
Sample speech excerpt: “As I’ve watched the Donald since the primaries, I realized that I initially misjudged him. For that, I solely blame the media and its hostility to strong Republican leaders. But now it’s obvious to me that Mr. Trump — like Ronald Reagan — is a principled conservative loved by the people and hated by the liberal elites.”
Downside: Watch the expression on Chris Christie’s face when he appears with Trump — and realize that could be you.
This is playing the “my party right or wrong” card. It will probably be the most popular gambit among beleaguered Republicans as they argue that even Lucifer himself would be a better president than the former first lady, former senator and former secretary of state.
Sample speech excerpt: “Do we want a president who bungled Libya and then lied about Benghazi? Do we want a president who jeopardized national security with a home-brew server? The Donald and I have had our policy differences, but we agree 100 percent about ‘Crooked Hillary.'”
Downside: If you’re an incumbent who cares passionately about Libya and national security, then you might feel a tad uncomfortable with a President Trump who didn’t know what the nuclear triad is and boasted about getting his foreign policy views from watching TV.
The Separation of Powers Hustle
This is the kind of two-step that you might try if your top strategist can’t stop talking about “Hamilton.” So cite “The Federalist Papers” to argue that you will solely be representing your state in the Senate — and that you will maintain your independence no matter who is president.
Sample speech excerpt: “Ronald Reagan was the last president who believed in limited government, as I do. Since then, under Democrat and Republican presidents alike, all power has flowed to the White House. But the Congress is a co-equal branch of government — and I will go to Washington to stand up for my constituents against whomever is president.”
Downside: The rhetoric sounds like it is a left-over from a states-rights speech from the segregationist 1950s. Also such stiff-necked independence (even if it’s fake) is designed to appeal to voters who split their tickets, a species that has become almost as rare as moderate Republicans.
The ‘Didn’t We Nominate Jeb?’ Defense
Alas, amnesia is a malady that voters associate with doddering senators like the late Strom Thurmond rather than vigorous 21st-century public officials. So the trick is to portray your obliviousness about Trump as a virtue rather than as a symptom of mental decay.
Sample Speech Excerpt: “I haven’t worked so hard on anything as I have fighting for you and the kumquat protection legislation that we all know is so vital. This demanding legislative business has meant that I haven’t even had time to glance at my smart phone or scan a newspaper. So I really don’t have an opinion about this Donald Trump.”
Downside: Maybe Jimmy Stewart in his earnest ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington‘ pose could have pulled this one off. But no else in the last 75 years has been up to this kind of acting challenge.
In truth, the only sure way for GOP candidates to distance themselves from Trump at the top of the ticket is not to nominate him. Instead, the Republicans are likely to pay a devastating price in November for showing less resolve against Trump than the French general staff displayed in 1940.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. He is a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.