To hear Donald Trump tell it for the last year, Senate Republicans were weak, dumb losers, and not just the ones he ran against for president. He infamously called Sen. John McCain “not a war hero” and tweeted that Sen. Jeff Flake was “a very weak and ineffective senator … Sad!” He lambasted Sen. Mark Kirk as “dishonest” and a “loser,” and told an Atlanta rally that he wished Republican leaders in Washington would “just please be quiet” so he could win the race by himself.
He tagged Sen. Lindsey Graham “a disgrace” and “one of the dumbest human beings I have ever seen.” Sen. “Little Marco” Rubio was “just another Washington, D.C., politician” with “the biggest ears I’ve ever seen.” Sen. Rand Paul was “truly weird” and Sen. “Lyin’” Ted Cruz was not only dishonest, but by Trump’s suggestion, his father was involved in the Kennedy assassination.
So imagine the irony if those useless slobs in the upper chamber, 22 of whom will share the ballot with Trump in November, actually help him win the White House on Election Day. That emerging possibility is a reversal from the assumption leading up to this point in the cycle, which said that Trump’s coattails would determine the fates of Senate Republicans, and not the other way around. If Trump did well, the thinking went, they would do well. If he tanked, he would take them down with him like passengers on the Titanic.
But as Trump’s poll numbers tumbled through the summer, the Republicans running for re-election worked to build their own brands, with their own paths to victory, independent of their erratic nominee. The result is now a class of Republican Senate candidates who are nearly all more popular than Trump, with many who have built robust campaign operations of their own, above and beyond Trump’s scattershot approach to Election Day.
An analysis last week by The Washington Post showed Senate Republican candidates overperforming Trump by an average of 4 points in competitive states. Only Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin and Rep. Todd Young in Indiana are polling worse than Trump.
In critical swing states like Arizona and Florida, “Not a War Hero” McCain and “the Biggest Ears I’ve Ever Seen” Rubio are not only pulling ahead of their Democratic rivals, they’re also outpolling Trump by double digits. So is Rob Portman in Ohio, where Portman has built a massive turnout operation to get his own voters to the polls, no matter what the Trump campaign does or does not do in November. Ohio is now tied for Trump and Clinton, but a major Portman victory could deliver just enough persuadable voters to the polls to give Trump a margin of victory.
In Georgia and Utah, two states that should be easy wins for Trump but are dangerously close contests instead, Sens. Johnny Isakson and Mike Lee are way out ahead of their rivals. If Trump wins those states, he may have them to thank for bringing Republicans to the polls who might not have bothered otherwise.
So how would a Trump White House work with a Republican Senate if the party defied expectations and won them both? It’s hard to imagine President Trump being able to bury the hatchet with senators he maligned along the way, who could then chair committees, allocate funds, and hold the votes for whatever agenda Trump has in mind. They might not forgive him for the things he said, and he might not forgive them for some insults they hurled in the heat of the campaign.
After months of being called “Little Marco,” Rubio snapped and called Trump a small handed, orange-hued “con artist.” Sen. Ben Sasse described Trump as one half of the dumpster fire that the election has become. Sen. Mike Lee said Trump “scares me to death,” while Cruz, after the Your-Father-Helped-Kill-Kennedy bit, called Trump a “sniveling coward” and “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country has ever seen.”
But it’s possible that all of those insults and nasty words about Trump during the primary were just politics masquerading as conviction.
On Friday, Cruz endorsed Trump after declaring at the Republican convention that he was “not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father.” But Cruz apparently is in the habit of supporting people who could be in power in the near future.
Even if Republican senators hold their own, the question remains whether voters who come out for their senators will also vote for Trump, split their tickets or skip the top line altogether. Ticket-splitting reached a 92-year low in the 2012 elections, but as Walter Shapiro pointed out here this summer, ticket splitting may not be dead, it might just be sleeping. The 2016 election will answer that question once and for all.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.