Nominee or not, Dems See Trump as Big Asset

Nominee or not, Dems See Trump as Big Asset
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Democrats have delighted in Donald Trump’s four-months-and-counting lead over the Republican field and the controversies that come with it — the latest, his call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States after the terrorist attacks in San Bernadino, Calif., last week.

But it’s not because Democrats think he will be the Republican nominee — a case that even Republicans worry would hand Democrats victories up and down the ballot. It’s because they believe the business mogul has damaged the GOP brand to an irreversible degree and given them a leg up in the November election.

And Trump’s latest call, “for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on,” has Democrats gleefully pointing out many Republicans have vowed to support Trump if he’s the nominee. Several GOP candidates were quick, however, to condemn Trump’s proposal.

“Thank God for Donald Trump,” says Bill Press, a radio show host and former chairman of the Democratic Party in California. “I think he's the best thing that’s ever happened to the Democratic Party this year, because Donald Trump’s the new face of the Republican Party, no doubt about it.”

Even Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, could not contain her glee about Trump, bursting into laughter when she heard his name during an interview with ABC on Sunday.

A new Marist poll, sponsored MSNBC and Telemundo, found that 58 percent of respondents and 65 percent of Latinos believe Trump is hurting the GOP’s image. Republicans were divided, with 40 percent saying Trump was hurting their party’s image, but 43 percent saying it was helping.

From his comments on a range of issues, from immigration to Muslims to women, Democrats at the national level and in key swing states believe Trump has already had an impact on the general election.

‘The bottom line is he is damaging their brand, and that’s a huge problem regardless of whether he stays in the race,” says Rick Palacio, chairman of the Democratic Party in Colorado, a purple state where women and Hispanic voters are critical constituencies. “Donald Trump has become the proverbial anchor around their necks.”

Trump shows no signs of fading away nationally. A CNN poll found him gaining ground among Republicans, helping him reach his biggest lead yet in the RealClearPolitics national polling average.

Thus far, Republicans have been at a loss at how to effectively take on Trump. And concerns are growing the closer it comes to voting time and there is not a clear Trump alternative.

Asked whether Trump will have a lasting impact on the GOP and its general election chances, Republican strategist Alex Castellanos says, “He may have; we don't know.”

“The answer is whether the nominee is a validation of Trump, or whether it is a rejection of Trump,” Castellanos says. “Does somebody absorb him and win, or does someone beat him and win?”

A new Monmouth poll in Iowa shows Sen. Ted Cruz taking the lead from Trump in the Hawkeye State just two months before voters start weighing in. The Texas senator appears to be gaining steam nationally.

But Democrats, and some Republicans, see little difference between Trump and Cruz in terms of their negative influence on the GOP brand. Cruz has been supportive of Trump on a variety of issues, particularly immigration, in the hopes of absorbing his supporters.

Democrats believe Trump has moved his party away from the direction it wanted to take after Mitt Romney lost Latino voters in the 2012 election. Additionally, the Democratic National Committee argues Republicans’ reluctance to take out Trump is a sign they are embracing him and that candidates hoping to tap into the outsider fervor to advance have started to emulate the front-runner.

“The party’s problems don’t start and end with Donald Trump,” says Eric Walker, a spokesman for the DNC. “When you really look at the policies from the other candidates and drill down, there's not a lot of daylight.”

It’s a message Democrats will push throughout the cycle, and will try to portray whomever emerges as the nominee as in the same mold as Trump.

The party takes particular glee in a memo put forth by the National Republican Senatorial Committee on the possibility of a Trump candidacy, which urges candidates to harness parts of Trump’s appeal.

“Trump has risen because voters see him as authentic, independent, direct, firm, — and believe he can’t be bought,” according to the private memo, first reported by The Washington Post. “These are the same character traits our candidates should be advancing in 2016. That’s Trump lesson #1.”

Democrats also insist they aren’t taking anything for granted. But they are seeing more and more opportunities to paint the GOP in a broad stroke the longer Trump impacts the race. Even if he is not the nominee, he isn’t going to go quietly into the night. Indeed, there is some concern among Republicans that Trump would run a third party bid, as expensive and complicated as that endeavor would be.

Democrats see the biggest potential in highlighting situations where the other candidates respond to Trump.

“Trump's biggest impact is that he's moved the conversation in such a conservative and at times xenophobic direction that he’s making a lot of these candidates compete on that same turf,” says Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist in Florida who managed Barack Obama’s campaign there in 2008. “It’s not so much the words Donald Trump has uttered, it's what the eventual nominee has.”

Another reason for Democrats to be delighted is that Trump overshadows would-be competitors. 

Schale argues that Republicans “would be foolish not to nominate Marco Rubio, because he’s the one guy who has so far been able to maintain fairly high favorables across the board, and I think he's the one person who has the potential to change the map on [the Hispanic vote].”

But Rubio’s path to the nomination is unclear. While he is rising in the polls, Trump still leads in polling averages of the early states and it’s not yet clear which states the Florida senator could win. And Rubio’s direct competitors — like Chris Christie and Jeb Bush — show no signs of backing out until after February’s New Hampshire primary, presuming they do not do well in that state.

Many Republicans believe — and hope — that the eventual nominee will be able to move past the era of Trump to start a new general election race.

“Trump isn't doing any favors for Colorado Republicans right now with his incendiary rhetoric, but ultimately, the only thing that matters is who is nominated next year," says Dick Wadhams, a Republican strategist and former chairman of the Colorado GOP. "A strong nominee such as Rubio, along with a credible Senate candidate, would overcome the stench left behind by Trump." 

But that time appears far off.

“The longer he stays in, the more he represents their brand,” says Max Steele, communications director for the Florida Democratic Party. “We’re a very large and diverse state and the comments Trump has made about a large swath of the Florida electorate will come back to haunt the Republican brand, whoever the nominee is.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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