Down-Ballot Republicans Are Trumped If They Do, Trumped If They Don’t

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Trump supporters rally outside of the Republican National Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill, October 10, 2016.Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

On Monday afternoon, a national spokesperson for the Trump campaign welcomed the Republican Party to its worst nightmare.

This is not an instance of Katrina Pierson going rogue. The Trump campaign hasn’t always excelled at message discipline. But after the Republican nominee’s 11-year-old endorsement of sexual assault inspired a wave of down-ballot Republicans to disavow the mogul, the Trump campaign’s message to other would-be turncoats has been clear: You will be destroyed.

House Speaker Paul Ryan did not rescind his endorsement of Trump on Monday. He merely gave other GOP congressional candidates permission to run away from the nominee if they wished. This betrayal was met with a swift reprimand.

Even if Trump were willing to silently abide dissent from his co-partisans, it’s unlikely that many of his supporters would. In a post-grab-’em-by-the-pussy poll, only 12 percent of Republican voters thought Trump should drop out — enough to make his election impossible, but hardly a mandate for party leaders to abandon him.

In the New York Times, Maggie Haberman provides anecdotal testaments to the way recent events have turned some Trump voters against their hero’s Republican detractors:

Paula Barche Rupnik, a Republican from Scottsdale, Ariz., was planning to vote for Senator John McCain in his re-election campaign this year. But she changed her mind this weekend, after he rescinded his support for Donald J. Trump. Instead, she plans to split her ticket, voting for Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, but for Mr. McCain’s Democratic challenger, Representative Ann Kirkpatrick. She has never voted for a Democrat before.

“I want to send a message to John McCain,” said Ms. Rupnik, 58, a consultant for an essential-oils company. “If he doesn’t get elected, the American people that support Trump are going to blame it on those Republicans who didn’t support him.”

If GOP candidates distance themselves from Trump, they jeopardize the support of their party’s base. But for Republicans in competitive races, their base isn’t enough. And post-tapegate polls suggest swing voters don’t want a president who boasts about sex crimes.

Every election year, the overriding goal of both political parties is to drive a wedge between the other team’s base and the rest of the country: Find an unpopular position that Republican donors and activists force their party to take, and then make that policy area the most salient of the campaign.

Trump has done the Democrats’ job for them. The mogul’s brazen misogyny and xenophobia has forced his party’s tolerance for such bigotries into the spotlight. And this left many congressional Republicans in an impossible position: They need to distance themselves from Trump in the eyes of some voters, while aligning themselves with him in the eyes of others.

Layered on top of this dilemma is a collective action problem: Individual GOP candidates — in districts with lots of swing voters and college-educated Republicans — may actually be better off disavowing Trump. But if every candidate in a purple district does this, and thus further discredits the GOP standard-bearer, they could end up discouraging Republican turnout: If Trump is trailing by 11 points on Election Day, less reliable GOP voters might decide to stay at home.

To fend off such a landslide, the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign made gestures of solidarity on Monday afternoon, with the RNC reaffirming its support for the candidate, and Trump firing a staffer who organized a protest of “Establishment pukes” outside of RNC headquarters.

Regardless, the best option for most down-ballot candidates, particularly those running as incumbents, may be to ignore the top of the ticket and disqualify their opponents.

“With four weeks to go, there’s certainly time for a check-and-balance campaign against Hillary Clinton to be effective,” Robert Blizzard, a GOP pollster with Public Opinion Strategies, told Politico. “But, given the potential landmines of pissing off Trump’s base, Clinton’s image rating improving, Obama’s approval rating on the rise, and the generic ballot shifting underneath us, the easiest, most effective way to counter a top-of-the-ticket wave is to frame your down-ticket race as a choice and define your opponent as an unacceptable alternative.”

But if the Trump campaign continues to blame its falling poll numbers on a traitorous GOP Establishment, a significant number of Republican voters could see their own incumbents as the most unacceptable of all.

“I think the Republican Party is out for itself,” said Buddy Greene, a 48-year-old Trump supporter in New Hampshire told the Times, explaining his decision not to vote for GOP senator Kelly Ayotte. “They are not looking at issues of regular folk in the country.”