As Donald Trump staggers following a series of self-inflicted political wounds, Republican candidates up and down the ballot are expressing growing disinterest in hitting the campaign trail with him this fall.
Over the past week, POLITICO surveyed nearly 50 GOP candidates in competitive House, Senate and governor’s races on whether they’d be willing to campaign with the Republican nominee. Only a handful said yes — and the rest said no, refused to commit or didn’t respond at all.
It’s an unusual turn of events. Typically down-ballot candidates — eager to generate excitement and media attention for themselves, to turbocharge fundraising, and to increase their stature — spend the fall months proudly campaigning alongside their presidential nominee.
But in the year of Trump, appearing on the same stage as the party’s standard-bearer — whose negative ratings are higher than any other GOP nominee’s in recent memory — is perilous for those running in hypercompetitive states and districts.
“I would recommend they have a perpetual scheduling conflict,” said Rob Jesmer, a former National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director who advises a number of the party’s most prominent lawmakers.
Among those most wary of campaigning alongside Trump is Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman, a suburban Denver Republican whose district broke for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Nearly 20 percent of the district is Latino — meaning it could well turn against Trump, whose rhetoric on immigration has alienated minorities. In recent days, Coffman, an Army and Marine veteran who fought in Iraq, has made clear his displeasure with Trump.
“Mike has grave reservations about his policies, his tone, this latest mind-blowing dust-up with Gold Star parents,” said Cinamon Watson, a Coffman spokeswoman. “So no, we aren’t campaigning with Donald Trump.”
The lack of enthusiasm is just as apparent in Florida, a must-win state for Trump that also features a number of competitive down-ballot contests. During a back-and-forth with reporters last week, Sen. Marco Rubio, a defeated Trump primary rival now running for reelection, refused to commit to appearing with his former foe.
“We’ll take that on a case-by-case basis. I have to run my own campaign, and so I’ve got to set my own schedule and I can’t be canceling events,” said Rubio, who — unlike some of his Senate colleagues — has endorsed Trump. “But if the opportunity presents itself, we’ll look at that and see if it makes sense.”
Others in the state are being more definitive: It isn’t happening.
A spokeswoman for GOP Rep. David Jolly, whose St. Petersburg-area district was narrowly won by Obama in the past two presidential elections, said the congressman “has no plans to campaign with Mr. Trump.” Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a freshman Republican who hails from a majority Latino district in South Florida and is a loud critic of Trump, declined to answer when asked about the prospect of campaigning with the GOP nominee — but volunteered that he’d be appearing with Rubio.
There is even a Republican in bright red Nebraska who is leery of being onstage with the party’s nominee. Nebraska allocates three of its five electoral votes by congressional district, and in the most diverse and politically competitive one — the Omaha-based 2nd — Republican Don Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general who is waging his first campaign for a House seat, has decided he’s better off not aligning himself with Trump.
“Campaigning with presidential candidates isn’t currently part of our strategy,” said Elliott Bottorf, a Bacon spokesman.
In the traditionally Democratic states that Trump has vowed to compete in, the desire to separate from Trump is even more intense. In Illinois — a state that hasn’t been won by a Republican presidential nominee since 1988, but which Trump has said he’ll put in play — GOP Rep. Bob Dold has declared that he won’t support or vote for Trump. “Bob’s position on that has never changed, so no, he will not be campaigning with or supporting Donald Trump in any fashion,” said James Slepian, a Dold spokesman.
Then there’s Trump’s home state of New York, where three Republican congressional hopefuls in swing districts say they had no plans to appear alongside the nominee. A spokesman for John Faso, a former leader in the state Legislature who is seeking a Hudson Valley-based seat, said the candidate “is not expecting to be joined on the trail by any other national candidates or officials.”
Trump spokespersons declined to comment on his upcoming plans to campaign with endangered Republicans. His travel this week is expected to take him to Wisconsin, where GOP Sen. Ron Johnson is running for reelection. Yet Johnson, according to an aide, isn’t expected to be in attendance.
Roughly half of the Republicans surveyed for this story did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Among them: Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, who has refused to endorse Trump. Toomey, one of the most imperiled Republican incumbents in the country, skipped the Republican National Convention and was not present on Monday during a Trump rally in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. According to a count compiled by the Washington Examiner, he has been absent for all four of the events Trump has held in the state as the nominee.
The dodging comes as senior GOP strategists grapple with how to deal with Trump. Amid the latest controversy surrounding his criticism of a family of a fallen U.S. soldier, some are urging Republican down-ballot hopefuls to take a harder tack against the nominee. Liesl Hickey, who served as National Republican Congressional Committee executive director during the 2014 midterms, has begun circulating a memo — obtained by POLITICO and titled “How to Survive in 2016” — addressed to imperiled House GOP contenders in which she argues that they have little to lose by distancing themselves from Trump.
“Vulnerable candidates are wringing their hands over this, and they should just stop. First, you do not need to motivate Trump voters to vote — they are voting and it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with Hillary Clinton,” writes Hickey, who has worked on a number of races in swing parts of the country.
Hickey encourages candidates to take a decisive stand on whether they back Trump — something many of them have struggled to do. “Make the decision based solely on what your district expects — not what party leaders, consultants or anyone else expects. Whatever position you take, it has got to be authentic,” she writes. “If there is any time to be absolutely clear, this is it. And if you supported him at one time and no longer can, don’t be scared to say it.”
Republicans, she advises, shouldn’t spend all their time talking about Trump. Hickey urges them to launch focused, carefully crafted attacks on Clinton — but to avoid personal diatribes, such as saying she belongs in prison.
Democrats, for their part, appear far more willing to campaign with Clinton. Of about 50 Democratic candidates for House, Senate and governors who were contacted, nearly half said they’d want to hit the trail with their presidential nominee.
Only two wouldn’t commit to campaigning with Clinton (though others declined to reply). One, Utah congressional hopeful Doug Owens, “is not planning to participate in any national campaigns,” said a spokesman. The other, Indiana gubernatorial candidate John Gregg, would “certainly consider it,” a spokesman said.
While Clinton’s negatives remain high, Democrats acknowledge, she’s not as toxic as Trump.
“It’s no surprise that House Republicans are using every excuse in the book to avoid campaigning with Donald Trump,” New York Rep. Steve Israel, a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, wrote in an email. “He continues to offend voters, including the families of our greatest American heroes. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has an appeal with working families that only helps us across the map.”
Some of the Clinton-hugging Democrats are competing in races where Republicans do not wish to appear with Trump. New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, who is running for Senate, recently spoke at a high-profile Portsmouth rally that featured Clinton and her defeated primary rival, Bernie Sanders. Yet GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Hassan’s opponent, has yet to appear with Trump — and an aide said she had “no plans to.”
While a spokesman for Illinois Democratic Senate hopeful Tammy Duckworth said she’s open to campaigning with Clinton, her opponent, GOP Sen. Mark Kirk, won’t be with his party’s standard-bearer. Kirk announced in June that he wouldn’t be supporting Trump. “I would say campaigning with him will not be happening,” said Eleni Demertzis, a Kirk spokeswoman.
Not everyone is avoiding Trump, however. Last week, two endangered North Carolina Republicans, Gov. Pat McCrory and Sen. Richard Burr, attended a rally Trump and his vice-presidential nominee, Mike Pence, held in the state. While polling in North Carolina indicates the race between Trump and Clinton there is close, Republican strategists in the state are convinced distrust of Clinton runs deep and that Trump’s outsider message has wide appeal.
Ultimately, though, the decision Republican candidates make about Trump comes down to one thing: instinct.
“How you position against/for/to the side of Trump is the looming question for everyone,” Hickey writes in the memo. “And it’s a big decision that ultimately comes down to a gut call.”