Republicans are scrambling to protect a growing number of down-ballot candidates — including several in conservative bastions — who they fear could be swamped by a Donald Trump wipeout in November.
Nearly a dozen GOP strategists said in interviews this week that they are taking steps to buttress Republicans in strongholds where private polling shows Trump — his recent uptick in public surveys notwithstanding — is threatening to drag down candidates running beneath him.
The Republican Governors Association in recent days has quietly funneled $1.5 million to Indiana and $3.5 million to Missouri, where Republican gubernatorial candidates are confronting tough races.
Senate Leadership Fund, a conservative outside group with ties to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has reserved a combined $6.5 million worth of TV ads in those two states — neither of which was initially thought to be a major Senate battleground.
And the National Republican Congressional Committee has ordered up fresh polling in a southern Indiana congressional district that Mitt Romney carried comfortably four years ago, but where Trump could be a liability.
The activity reflects widespread worry that Trump’s down-ticket impact will be far-reaching and isn’t yet fully understood.
“Right now in some ways it’s the fear of the unknown,” said Erik Iverson, a Republican pollster who is working on a variety of races. “What is this electorate going to look like in November? Who’s going to turn out, and who are they going to turn out for at the top of the ticket?”
Democrats are upping the pressure. Over the past week, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has announced plans to purchase TV air time in Arizona and Georgia, a pair of states that normally wouldn’t be especially concerning for Republicans but that they now have to keep an eye on.
What has Republicans most on edge is Trump’s lack of support in suburban areas — particularly among women, millennials and those with a college degree. In recent weeks, party operatives have begun to monitor the reelection bid of Kansas Rep. Kevin Yoder, whose seat encompasses a swath of Kansas City and its suburbs. While the district tilts Republican, they have reason to worry Trump could become a problem there. This week, Yoder released an internal survey showing him with a double-digit lead over his Democratic opponent while Trump trailed Hillary Clinton in the district.
In a conservative Arizona congressional district that takes in part of the northern Tucson suburbs, meanwhile, party pollsters say they’ve discovered that Trump’s precarious standing with female voters could hurt them.
Republicans say the Trump effect could even extend to state legislative races. One closely watched state Senate race is taking place in the Columbia, South Carolina, suburbs, where an internal Republican survey conducted last month found the GOP candidate, Susan Brill, narrowly trailing her Democratic rival. Trump may be taking a toll: The survey also tested the presidential race in the Senate district and found the GOP nominee losing by 22 points.
“My biggest concern is for otherwise relatively safe, though competitive, Republicans in suburban districts,” said Chris Wilson, a Republican pollster who advises a number of candidates in conservative areas. “They’re going to face the perfect storm of well-educated Republican and conservative independent voters who are turned off by Trump, active courting of those voters by Clinton to make it OK to vote Democrat or just to stay home, and a total lack of national data or assistance in identifying and turning those voters out.”
In some states, such as Indiana, Republicans believe a lack of enthusiasm among their voters could prove costly. Party operatives have polled in two conservative, GOP-held congressional districts in the state — one held by Rep. Jackie Walorski and the other by Rep. Todd Young — and found both races are surprisingly close. One prominent Republican pollster said the party was grappling with how to generate excitement from a GOP base that’s far less passionate about Trump than it was about Mitt Romney in 2012.
The GOP’s prospects are worse in Indiana’s Senate race, where polling has shown Todd Young trailing. In July, former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, a mainstay of the state’s political scene, announced he was waging a comeback bid — a coup for his party.
It isn’t just Trump’s public image that threatens to impede Republicans running down-ballot; Trump’s failure to develop political infrastructure could also become an anchor. While congressional and state-level contenders — including those running in red territory — typically rely on presidential nominees to bring Republican voters out to the polls, this year they won’t be able to.
The RGA’s transfer to Indiana and Missouri, much of which is being directed to get-out-the-vote efforts, reflects the growing urgency. It marks the first time since 2010 that the organization has made a substantial investment in field deployment. That year, it stepped in because the Republican National Committee was destitute.
“The lack of any real effort by Trump to build a political infrastructure is going to hurt all of our candidates in close races,” said Wilson. “The Democrats’ advantage in data and ground-game organization is going to be even bigger this year than in recent years not because of technical ability this time, but because the presidential campaign which is supposed to be the hub of that effort is almost totally ignoring it.”
In some instances, hopefuls are taking matters into their own hands. Arizona Sen. John McCain, who’s seeking a sixth term, has established a massive ground effort, with seven field staffers and three offices. As of Aug. 17, the campaign had conducted 3 million voter contacts — more, according to a McCain spokeswoman, than were made in any of his previous Senate election bids.
Republicans hope that infrastructure will help a number of other candidates in competitive races around the state. Trump’s organization in Arizona, several operatives there said, is virtually nonexistent.
“I’ve never seen anything like this from a McCain organization — it’s more like a tech company,” said Tony Bradley, a longtime former McCain staffer who heads the Arizona Trucking Association.
“I think what you’ll see is that down-ballot candidates will benefit from the work that he’s putting in,” he added. “It’s a unique circumstance. If McCain were not No. 2 on the ticket, it might be a very different scenario.”
In Missouri, something even more unusual is playing out. Eric Schmitt, a Republican candidate for state treasurer, has used his campaign war chest — flush with $2.5 million after winning the nomination unopposed — to set up a handful of offices across the state that are also being used to help other candidates with turnout efforts.
Alarm bells have gone off in the state’s GOP circles over the last week. A poll of the Missouri governor’s race, overseen by the political consulting firm owned by prominent GOP strategist Jeff Roe, found Democrat Chris Koster leading Republican Eric Greitens, 46 percent to 42 percent.
Not everyone is convinced Republicans face certain peril in conservative havens. Trump has become more disciplined of late, assuaging the fears of many GOP strategists who spent much of the summer convinced his campaign was going off the rails. And in most conservative parts of the country, Clinton is a deeply unpalatable figure.
But no one — not even those running in red territory — wants to take their chances.
“It’s a unique year for sure, with very different coalitions developing,” said Nicole McCleskey, a Republican pollster who has advised a number of gubernatorial and congressional candidates, adding that it is “forcing down-ballot campaigns to work harder and smarter to navigate and win.”