Trump’s Bump Has GOP Rethinking

Republicans in wait-and-see mode after polls show their candidate gaining on Clinton

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign event with veterans at the Trump International Hotel in Washington on Friday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign event with veterans at the Trump International Hotel in Washington on Friday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 19, 2016 at 5:00am

House and Senate Republicans might not resort to their Donald Trump contingency plan after all.

For months, the party’s down-ballot candidates prepared to distance themselves from their unpopular presidential nominee in the election’s final weeks, convinced that an overt effort was necessary to prevent big losses in Congress. The approach, known as the “check-and-balance” argument, would stipulate that voters needed a Republican-controlled Congress if Hillary Clinton or Trump won the presidency.

But now leading party strategists say Trump’s rising poll numbers and relatively toned-down approach might make the strategy unnecessary — assuming Trump is able to sustain his momentum.

“We’ve tested it, we know it works in some places, but until the first debate is over, it’s premature,” said Scott Reed, a senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Trump has made this a competitive race. He’s lifted all boats. He’s bringing Republicans home.”

Republicans readily concede that Trump could still implode. And if he does, down-ballot GOP candidates will need to emphasize the check they can provide on a Clinton presidency.

Their fears resurfaced late last week, when Trump first refused to say during an interview that President Obama was born in America before conceding a day later that he had — though not before falsely accusing Clinton of starting the conspiracy theory.

Wait-and-see mode

But for now, the GOP is in a wait-and-see mode with a strategy many recently assumed would be a fixture of the party’s fall message.  

“Certainly, Trump’s much more competitive than most strategists, myself included, expected him to be at this time,” said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster.

The changing attitude comes amid a time of renewed optimism that the party can retain control of the Senate, a prospect that a month ago appeared seriously imperiled by Trump’s struggling campaign.

But what was a 7- to 8-point deficit in many battleground states has since shrunk considerably or disappeared altogether. And many of the Senate candidates running there have seen a corresponding improvement in their own poll numbers.

A CNN/ORC survey released last week, for instance, found GOP Florida Sen. Marco Rubio leading by 11 points, 54 percent to 43 percent, his highest margin yet in a post-primary public poll of his race against Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy.  

“We were in the ICU, flat-lining,” said one Republican operative involved in Senate races. “We’re still in the hospital, but we’re in the normal room now.”

In fits and starts, the check-and-balance message has been put to use already by several Republican candidates in blue districts and states. Days after winning his Arizona primary last month, Sen. John McCain released a web video saying that if Clinton were elected, “Arizona will need a senator who will act as a check, not a rubber stamp for the White House.”

Rubio has made a similar argument. And in Colorado, Rep. Mike Coffman ran a TV ad in his swing House district saying he would stand up to Trump or Clinton.

But many Republican strategists say this kind of argument should be used only in an emergency, when Trump is trailing so badly that a candidate has no choice but to issue a plea to voters to not hold their party’s standard-bearer against them.

Alienating Trump’s base

The risk is twofold, they say: First, time spent talking about Trump and the presidential race means less time to talk about things like jobs and national security, two issues voters care more about.

Second, positioning against Trump in any way could alienate his base of core Republican voters.

“Cutting Trump off puts you in a position, especially for Republicans, that you may be alienating part of your base by trying to pick up folks who are probably more moderate,” said Mark Dion, who is running a super PAC supporting Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Patrick J. Toomey. “You don’t want to be in a positon where you have to give up one to pick up another, a less than zero-sum game.”

Dion and other Republicans like him are still waiting to see if Trump continues to perform well in the polls, or if he, as he has so often in the past, begins to say and do things on the campaign trail that put other members of the party ticket in a difficult situation.

Most strategists say the first presidential debate, slated for next Monday, will determine the party’s approach. If Trump stumbles — and many of them pointed out that he never debated one-on-one during the GOP presidential primaries as he will against Clinton — the check-and-balance message might come back into vogue.

“It’s not as likely as it once was, but there’s a lot of football game left,” said Bolger, the GOP pollster. “Just because you don’t use a play in the first half doesn’t mean you don’t pull it out in the second half.”