By John Cassidy – – – – –
With Donald Trump trailing badly in the polls and Election Day approaching, a key question is whether his presence at the top of the Republican ticket will cost the party its majorities in the Senate or the House. If either were to happen, it would transform the prospects for a Hillary Clinton Presidency—and it would also cement Trump’s position as the biggest party wrecker in recent history.
If, like me, you have been watching the Presidential race so closely that you haven’t paid a great deal of attention to the congressional races, it’s time to change your ways. In this post, I’ll concentrate on the Senate, where the Republicans currently have an eight-seat majority: fifty-four to forty-six. (That’s counting as Democrats Maine’s Angus King and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, two senators who were elected as independents but who caucus with Clinton’s party.) Because Vice-Presidents cast the decisive votes on matters where the Senate finds itself in a fifty-fifty tie, the Democrats need a net gain of four seats to have an effective majority.
Right now, both the state polls and polls-based forecasting models indicate that the Democrats are likely to reach that number, with the caveat that the outcome is a lot less predictable than the Presidential race. In a number of states, the Republican candidates for the Senate are still outperforming Trump handily, but Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape and its aftermath have created more serious problems for them. The battle for the Senate, almost certainly, will come down to seven fiercely contested races, six of which—in Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—are for seats currently held by Republicans. There is another tight contest in Nevada, where Harry Reid, the Democratic warhorse, is retiring.
The Democratic Party went into this campaign with a big strategic advantage. Of the thirty-four seats up for grabs, twenty-four are currently held by Republicans, and, in addition to the six listed above, others in Florida, Illinois, and Ohio were also considered vulnerable. Over the summer, Rob Portman, who is running for reëlection in Ohio, built up a sizable lead in the polls, as did Marco Rubio, in Florida. Most political experts now believe these two seats are beyond the Democrats’ grasp. On the other side of the ledger, the reëlection battle of the Republican Senator Mark Kirk, of Illinois, who won his office in the Tea Party wave of 2010, is widely considered to be a lost cause.
That leaves six Republican-held battlegrounds and one that is Democratic-held. Let’s consider each in turn:
Indiana: Evan Bayh, the former Democratic senator, has a narrow lead in the polls over Todd Young, a Republican congressman who represents a district based in Bloomington, in a race to succeed Senator Dan Coats, a Republican who is retiring. Bayh and Young, who debated each other Tuesday night in Indianapolis, have already raised and spent pots of money: more than thirty million dollars, according to recent disclosure reports.
Bayh, a moderate who served in the Senate from 1999 to 2011, entered the race in July, after the winner of the Democratic primary, Baron Hill, dropped out. Over the summer, Bayh built up a big lead in the polls, but Young, a former Marine, has narrowed the gap by depicting the Democrat as an insider who got corrupted by Washington. A poll taken at the start of this month showed that Bayh’s lead had shrunk to a single percentage point.
Over the past ten days, however, the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, combined with the women who’ve come forward to make sexual allegations against Trump, have provided Bayh with a much needed lift. Todd has endorsed Trump, who won the Indiana Republican primary earlier this year by a wide margin, but has also criticized some of Trump’s statements. Last week, he said he was giving “very serious consideration” to withdrawing his support for the Republican nominee, but in the end decided not to, saying, “Most Hoosiers intend to support the Republican nominees. Most Hoosiers believe leaders like myself should speak out when we disagree.”
The problem for Young, as it is for other down-ballot Republicans, isn’t so much that the Party’s voters desert him for his opponent because of his ties to the Presidential candidate. It’s that they won’t vote at all on November 8th because of their distaste for Trump. According to a Monmouth University poll that was carried out last week, Trump’s lead over Clinton in Indiana has fallen from eleven points in August to four points now. Just thirty-one per cent of respondents said they had a favorable view of Trump, with fifty-eight per cent saying they had an unfavorable opinion. The same survey indicated that Bayh was leading Young by six points, his biggest lead in a published poll since August.
Missouri: In a state that now leans Republican at the Presidential level but is competitive in state races, Senator Roy Blunt, a Republican, is struggling to fend off a strong challenge by his Democratic opponent, Jason Kander, Missouri’s thirty-five-year-old secretary of state. The most recent poll, by Monmouth, showed Blunt leading by just two points, which was within the survey’s margin of error.
While some of Blunt’s problems are of his own making—he has been criticized for not campaigning hard enough early on—he’s also facing a young, energetic, well-financed candidate who has strategically distanced himself from President Obama on several issues, such as trade, immigration, and closing Guantánamo. When Blunt and the N.R.A. attacked Kander for his support of modest measures to limit gun sales, Kander, who served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, released an ad that showed him assembling an AR-15 blindfolded.
Despite being widely viewed as an establishment Republican, Blunt, who serves as the chairman of the Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill, has publicly endorsed Trump, who, according to the polls, has been leading Clinton in Missouri for months. After the “Access Hollywood” tape came out, Blunt called Trump’s remarks “totally inappropriate and disgusting,” but didn’t withdraw his support for the G.O.P. candidate, who is still leading in Missouri, according to recent polls. Kander, for his part, has claimed that his opponent’s support of Trump is “purely a political calculation” on Blunt’s part, and has accused him of “putting his party ahead of his country.”
Nevada: Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democratic former state attorney general, is trying to become the first Hispanic woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate. On her side, she has demographics—non-white voters now make up more than a third of the electorate—as well as a well-organized statewide political machine, and Reid, the grand old man of Nevada politics, who is vacating the Senate seat he has held since 1987. Cortez Masto’s opponent is Joe Heck, a Republican congressman for a district south of Las Vegas, who has run an effective campaign and who, until recently, was leading in the polls. But Trump’s troubles have caught up with him.
Back in February, Trump won the Republican primary in Nevada by more than twenty percentage points, and Heck, who trained as a doctor and served in Iraq as part of the United States Army Reserve, endorsed Trump early in his campaign. On occasion, such as when said he favored a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, Heck has distanced himself from the G.O.P. candidate. But at other times, such as when Trump attacked the Khan family, he has remained silent. Last week, however, after the “Access Hollywood” tape emerged, Heck called on Trump to withdraw from the race, saying he could “no longer look past the pattern of behavior and comments that have been made by Donald Trump.”
This move doesn’t appear to have helped Heck. At the rally where he unendorsed Trump, a number of people jeered and called him a traitor. Since then, two polls have shown him falling behind Cortez Masto in the polls. One survey, for a Las Vegas television station, showed him trailing by five points; the other, by CNN/ORC, indicated that Cortez Masto was ahead by seven points. While there is no definitive proof that Trump’s troubles are responsible for Heck’s slip in the polls, it certainly looks that way. Seventy-nine per cent of the respondents to the CNN/ORC poll said they had heard or read a good deal about the “Access Hollywood” tape, and fifty-eight per cent said they believed Trump’s comments reflected his views about women generally.
New Hampshire: Kelly Ayotte, the Republican senator who is seeking reëlection in a closely fought battle against Maggie Hassan, the state’s Democratic governor, is another candidate struggling mightily to deal with the Trump phenomenon. After the “Access Hollywood” tape came out, she issued a statement saying she couldn’t support “a candidate for president who brags about assaulting and degrading women.” But Hassan and the Democrats are attacking her mercilessly for not breaking with Trump earlier.
Running in the state where Trump achieved his breakthrough victory in the Republican primary, Ayotte spent much of this year officially supporting him on the grounds that he was the G.O.P. nominee. But she never actually endorsed him. When Trump made offensive remarks about Muslims, women, and the Khan family, she distanced herself. But at a debate in September she declared that he was “absolutely” a role model for children—a comment that Democrats seized upon. In an attack ad released last week, the Hassan campaign alternated film of Ayotte making this comment with footage of Trump’s “Access Hollywood” interview.
For almost the entire year, Ayotte has held a narrow lead in the polls. But the two most recent surveys, which were carried out after the Trump tape appeared, showed the race in a statistical tie. A WBUR survey found Ayotte and Hassan dead even, and a poll by the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and a local television station showed Ayotte leading by one point. That suggests the trend is going in Hassan’s direction, but the WBUR poll did contain one bit of good news for Ayotte: almost two-thirds of the respondents said she did the right thing in breaking with Trump.
North Carolina: In another state with changing demographics, Richard Burr, a two-term Republican incumbent, is locked in a surprisingly tight race against Deborah Ross, a Raleigh attorney and former Democratic state assemblywoman, who only entered her party’s primary after other, better-known candidates skipped it. In addition to running a more spirited campaign than Burr, Ross has received plenty of backing from national Democratic groups, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Emily’s List, and Planned Parenthood. Trump, too, is helping her out.
When it endorsed Ross on Sunday, the Raleigh News & Observer argued that Burr, despite being the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had a lackluster record in the Senate—and the paper also pointed out that he “continues to support Donald Trump for president.” Burr made that clear in a debate with Ross last week, when he said he didn’t believe that Trump had committed the acts he boasted about in the “Access Hollywood” video. “I think, if in fact he did it, that would be sexual assault,” Burr said. “I take him at his word: he said he didn’t do it.”
This is another race where the Republican had a steady lead in the polls that has now virtually vanished. According to a CNN/ORC poll carried out late last week, Burr is clinging to a one-point lead. Another survey taken earlier in the week, by NBC News, the Wall Street Journal, and Marist College, indicated that the contest is dead even. In both polls, it appeared that Ross has benefitted from Clinton’s rise in the polls, and that Burr has suffered along with Trump. Both recent surveys indicated that Clinton is now ahead in the Tar Heel State. In the CNN/ORC polls, she was up by three points among likely voters. In the other polls, she was up by four points.
In an interview over the weekend with the Washington Times, Jason M. Roberts, a political-science professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill,said that the biggest threat to Burr was “reduced Republican turnout because voters are so demoralized by Trump and because the Republican ground game in North Carolina is much weaker than usual.” The same could be said for many other states.
Pennsylvania: Pat Toomey, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania, is another G.O.P.er up for reëlection who has been trying to sidestep the Trump issue. Ideologically, Toomey and Trump have little in common. Toomey, a former head of the corporate-sponsored Club for Growth, is a small-government, pro-free-trade Paul Ryan Republican. To save his skin, though, he has tacked toward Trump on issues like immigration and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, all without officially endorsing or disavowing the Republican nominee.
“The way I look at it is we have two terrible choices,” he said last week, after the “Access Hollywood” tape emerged. On Monday, in a televised debate with his opponent, Katie McGinty, Toomey also distanced himself from Trump’s claims that the election is “rigged.” But he dodged questions about whether he intended to vote for him. Trying to change the subject, he accused McGinty of lying about her résumé.
According to the polls, this is another very tight race. A survey by Bloomberg taken early last week put McGinty, an environmentalist who has advised Al Gore and Bill Clinton, ahead by two percentage points. But a new poll by Quinnipiac University, which came out on Tuesday, showed Toomey leading by four points among likely voters. Perhaps the best news in the poll for Toomey was that his both-ways approach to Trump appeared to be paying off among independent voters, a group with whom he was leading McGinty by a big margin.
Wisconsin: For months now, Russ Feingold, the Democrat who represented the Badger State in the Senate from 1993 to 2011, has been leading the incumbent Republican, Ron Johnson, in the polls. Until the “Access Hollywood” tape emerged, however, Johnson was defying the national trend and gaining ground on Feingold, whom he defeated in 2010. Two polls taken in the first week of October indicated that the two candidates were within three points of each other.
Like Toomey, Ayotte, and others, Johnson has equivocated over his support for Trump. In the spring, he said that he would endorse the New Yorker if he got the nomination. When Trump was nominated, Johnson kept his pledge. Since then, Johnson has criticized a number of Trump’s statements, including his attack on a federal judge of Mexican heritage, but he has stopped short of withdrawing his endorsement. Last week, when he was asked about Trump’s boasts about sexually assaulting women, Johnson said he still intended to vote for Trump, because “four years of Hillary Clinton would be unacceptable.”
It’s not yet entirely clear what impact Trump’s recent woes have had on this race. In a televised debate last Friday, Feingold hammered Johnson, who stuck with his position that he supported “our Republican nominee” but refused even to mention Trump by name. A poll published Tuesday by St. Norbert College, in De Pere, put Feingold twelve points ahead. Obviously, that was encouraging news for the Democrats, but we’ll have to wait for more data to see if the survey was an outlier.
The general message from all these races is that Trump is dragging down his party, and things are looking pretty good for the Democrats. Republicans badly need Trump to regain some ground, or, at the very least, to stabilize his position. On Tuesday, they got more worrying news: a new Quinnipiac poll from Florida indicated that Rubio’s lead over Patrick Murphy, a Democratic congressman who represents a district north of Palm Beach, has shrunk to two points. Surveying some of the closest Senate races, Peter Brown, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac Poll, said in a statement, “For the most part, these Republican Senate candidates . . . will need to run ahead of the party’s presidential ticket in order to get re-elected.”