In late October of 1996, Republicans cut ties with their presidential nominee and focused their efforts on preserving their congressional majorities. The party ran ads that all but conceded Bob Dole would lose, and instead urged voters to vote Republican down the ticket so as to avoid giving President Clinton “a blank check” with a Democratic Congress.
The strategy worked: The GOP picked up two Senate seats that year, keeping its majority in the upper chamber, and it also retained control of the House.
Now there is talk that a similar strategy may have to be put in play this fall, given the spate of Donald Trump mistakes in recent weeks – and throughout the campaign.
Twenty years ago, GOP campaign officials saw presidential polling that gave a several-point advantage to the Democrats (Clinton would win re-election by eight percentage points), but they also found support for divided government. “If Clinton is re-elected, heaven forbid, the last thing the American people want is for him to have a blank check in the form of a liberal Democrat Congress,” then-Republican National Committee Chair Haley Barbour said at the time.
And while mid-August 2016 may be too early to pull out the 1996 playbook, national and early state polling — mixed with a gaffe-prone and unapologetic Republican nominee — has some in the party testing some of its elements.
“If we fail to protect our majority in Congress, we could be handing President Hillary Clinton a blank check,” read a recent fundraising email from Paul Ryan. The House speaker also released a video this week urging voters to consider his “Better Way” agenda instead of chasing the “loudest voices.” Some former campaign officials and lawmakers are urging RNC Chairman Reince Priebus to pull the financial plug on Trump and allocate more money to House and Senate races. Time magazine reported that Priebus has warned Trump of that possibility if he doesn’t change his tune.
The “blank check” argument could be a helpful one for a handful of vulnerable Republican senators running in key battleground states, especially since both Trump and Clinton are so unpopular among voters. But the strategic approach required for Republicans to keep their majority in the Senate while losing the White House is difficult, as ticket splitting is on a historical decline.
In 1996, for example, 25 percent of congressional districts voted for one party for president and another for the House. In 2012, only 5.7 percent did so, marking the lowest percentage since the 1920 election, according to data from the Brookings Institution.
In 2012, ticket splitting in several Senate races favored the party of the presidential victor: Democrats kept or won seats in four red states: Missouri, Montana, Indiana, and North Dakota. This year, they need to gain four seats to take control of the upper chamber if Clinton is elected president (and five if Trump is elected).
Republican candidates in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and New Hampshire are betting on this being an extraordinary election year—one in which, even if their standard-bearer loses, they can run ahead of him and potentially eke out victories.
“The trend in American politics has not been toward ticket splitting, but Trump may be an unusual candidate who ends up promoting it more,” says Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Chuck Grassley of Iowa are taking some solace in new polls this week that show the incumbents running ahead of Trump in their states.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll found Trump trailing in Iowa by four points, but Grassley leading his challenger by 10. The Iowa senator has served for three decades and is well regarded in the state. He is unlikely to be defined by Trump. Portman, though a freshman, is in a similar situation. Trump trails by five points in the Buckeye State, but the incumbent senator leads by the same number. And in Pennsylvania, Trump trails by 11 points while Toomey lags behind by a smaller number, four percentage points.
A Quinnipiac University poll finds Trump and Clinton essentially tied in Florida, while Rubio holds a slight three-point edge. The same poll in Ohio found Portman leading by nine points, while Trump trailed by four. And in Pennsylvania, Toomey trailed by three points, within the margin of error, while Trump was behind by 10.
“At this stage of the campaign, Republican U.S. Senate candidates may be running against their own presidential nominee, Donald Trump, as much as they are against their Democratic opponents,” said the poll’s assistant director, Peter Brown. “But if Trump continues to lag behind in the presidential race, that will make it more difficult for GOP candidates, logic holds, up and down the ballot.”
These Republican incumbents, therefore, find themselves in a difficult position when it comes to supporting Trump. Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, who is in a tough race that has analysts predicting his defeat, has denounced his party’s nominee, seeing no political benefit to doing otherwise. For others, though, the strategy is not cut and dried. While few are inclined to appear with the nominee or mention his name on the stump, opting instead to localize their own races, there are also perils to cutting ties altogether.
“You can’t rule that out it discourages Republicans and hurts their turnout,” says Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall poll in Pennsylvania.
One veteran Republican operative who was involved in the 1996 effort cited exactly that reason in saying the RNC is unlikely to withhold support for the nominee: “If you pull the plug on Trump, you’re going to be writing off a significant percentage of Republican voters.”
Toomey figures to be the most vulnerable of the imperiled group. His opponent, Katie McGinty, earned a bump in the polls after the Democratic convention, a sign of nothing more than Clinton’s coattails, Madonna says. Trump had hoped to flip Pennsylvania with his populist appeal among working-class voters there. But his tone and rhetoric could turn off other reliable Republican voters in the state. Pennsylvania has been a Democratic stronghold for several cycles, and isn’t as competitive nationally for Republicans as they hope it will be each cycle. Toomey is a fiscal conservative elected in the Tea Party wave who has also led bipartisan legislative efforts on gun control.
“If he fully embraces Trump, he upsets swing voters. If he distances himself from Trump, he upsets his own party’s base,” says Kondik.
Some strategists believe that while straight ticket voting is commonplace in this era of polarized politics, a few candidates might be able to paint Trump as out of the GOP mainstream while instead promoting their own agenda and accomplishments.
But the candidates haven’t quarantined Trump from their party–yet. It may be too early. Or, it may be because the distancing could create turnout problems. Voter turnout is typically higher in presidential elections than in midterms because of the attention paid to the top of the ticket.
“Republicans might be able to get ticket splitting–but only if those voters actually show up,” says Kondik. “Republicans face a hard choice in how to motivate their people to vote.”
Of all the Republicans up for re-election, Portman is thought to be more likely than the others to defy convention. The Ohio lawmaker has been campaigning in Democratic areas and his staff and volunteers have had a counter-presence at Clinton rallies. Portman is launching a bus tour through the state this weekend focusing on his own record and agenda. The senator and former Bush administration official is supportive of free trade agreements that Trump opposes and that figure to play a key role in the manufacturing state. But he also has the support of union groups. He is well organized in Ohio, while Trump is not, and has one of the best financed Senate campaigns in the country.
Portman is also benefiting from the idea that his opponent, Ted Strickland, has run a poor campaign. This week, the former governor had to apologize for suggesting that the death of Justice Antonin Scalia was fortuitous for Democrats.
While Portman has the potential to overcome a Trump loss in his state, some of his less experienced colleagues look destined, at this point, to go down if their nominee does. In Wisconsin, for example, Clinton now leads among likely voters by 15 points, according to the Marquette Law School poll. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson trails Democratic former Sen. Russ Feingold by 11 points. Johnson has focused on his own Senate and businesses experience, but he has also been positive about Trump. The senator spoke at the party convention in Cleveland, while colleagues like Toomey and New Hampshire’s. Kelly Ayotte passed on the opportunity.
The spotlight again found Ayotte earlier this week when her New England colleague, Susan Collins of Maine, wrote an op-ed opposing Trump. The freshman senator’s response underscored the way in which lawmakers like her are approaching a difficult and unconventional election cycle.
“I’m focusing on running for re-election … on how we can work together to find common ground rather than focusing on our differences,” Ayotte said when asked by reporters about the Collins news. “I’ve also been quite clear when I’ve had disagreements with him. Whoever wins this presidential race, it’s going to be very important that the senator from New Hampshire stands up.”
The response evoked the idea of checks and balances that might be more commonly uttered on the campaign trail as the race continues.
“You could by the end of this campaign have very active engagements by state parties and members of Congress to separate themselves from the top of the ticket and to encourage ticket splitting,” says Madonna. “The real question is how much ticket splitting can these Republicans get–and hypothetically, what happens if Clinton wins by 10 points? How can down-ballot candidates survive the coattail effects?”