Washington – For months Donald Trump has dominated the political scene like no other. But listen to endangered Senate Republicans as they campaign for re-election and you might not even know he exists.
In Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey chairs a hearing in Scranton on opioid abuse, a major issue in his state and others. In Ohio, Rob Portman delivers remarks to the City Club of Cleveland about criminal justice reform. In Wisconsin, Ron Johnson boasts of his fight against a federal clean water rule opposed by local farmers. But none of those events focused on the presidential race.
These efforts and others during the Senate’s just-completed spring recess illustrate a strategy born of necessity as Republicans work feverishly to hang onto their narrow Senate majority in November. From Nevada to New Hampshire, GOP candidates and imperiled incumbents are blowing off questions about Trump, the presidential race and the Supreme Court as they try to box out a national political atmosphere increasingly unfavorable to their candidacies, focusing relentlessly instead on local issues in their states.
GOP senators should campaign “like they’re running for sheriff,” said Ward Baker, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of the Senate GOP. That means that when asked about the latest eyebrow-raising pronouncement from Trump, candidates will voice their disagreement, then immediately move on. They will note that they are running for Senate, not president, and start talking about, say, water quality in Lake Erie (a perennial focus for Portman).
“The key part is going to be making sure your identity is separate from the top of the ticket, and that people know you for you, and know your record, and that’s separate from whatever else is going on,” said Brian Walsh, a veteran GOP strategist and former Senate communications director.
Democrats scoff at the suggestion the GOP strategy can succeed in a political environment focused overwhelmingly on national issues and dominated by Trump, whose disparaging comments about women, minorities and others have him struggling in the polls with key voter blocs. Even if the unpredictable businessman doesn’t end up as the Republicans’ presidential nominee, Democrats insist that the other leading option, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, will leave Republicans arguably worse off because Cruz’s unyielding brand of conservatism could alienate independents who might be open to Trump.
“It shows you the trouble Republicans are in that they are running away from their national candidates and party platform. But it won’t work,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who is in line to become majority leader if the Democrats succeed in retaking Senate control. “If there was ever an election where national issues are going to dominate, it’s this one.”
Indeed the strategy of trying to keep individual races local in the face of a hostile national environment is nothing new, and officials on both sides acknowledge it has its limits. Just two years ago Democrats were taking much the same approach as they contended with President Barack Obama’s low approval ratings amid a host of unfavorable national and international developments, from the Ebola epidemic to Islamic State attacks overseas. It didn’t work, and their Senate majority got washed away in a devastating nine-seat loss, giving Republicans a 54-46 edge.
This time the imperative for Senate Republicans to keep it local is even more urgent, given the potential for a GOP wipeout on the presidential level. Even many Republicans, talking privately, predict that a Trump or Cruz candidacy will spell certain defeat for their party. And if that does loom, a Republican Senate would stand as the last line of defense against a Democratic president and his or her Supreme Court nominees — an argument that strategists on both sides anticipate could lead GOP donors to shift their spending from the presidential race to Senate campaigns in months to come.
Republican Senate campaign officials insist that they can beat the national political tide, arguing they’ve been preparing to do so since the day after the 2014 elections. The GOP was always going to be at a disadvantage in this year’s Senate races, since the party is defending more than twice as many seats as Democrats, including seven in states Obama won in 2012. Led by Baker, a former Marine, party officials are working methodically from their military-themed headquarters near the Capitol, where staffers start arriving before 4 a.m. to execute a game plan that includes making individual, direct contact with as many voters as possible, even in states traditionally considered safe for the GOP like Alabama.
They have contacted 1.5 million voters in Ohio so far, and almost a million in Alabama ahead of the March 1 primary, officials said.
Yet Democrats argue the GOP efforts are being drowned out by the national focus on Trump, Cruz and the presidential race, and no amount of effort by Republican senators can change the subject.
Since most Republicans have pledged to support the eventual GOP nominee, Democrats say there’s no way Republicans can escape Trump or Cruz, and Democratic candidates won’t let them if they try. In Illinois, where GOP Sen. Mark Kirk faces an uphill fight for his seat, Democrat Tammy Duckworth released a video featuring ominous music, Trump making a series of provocative statements and Kirk saying repeatedly of Trump: “If he was the nominee I certainly would” support him.