Dems Fear Trump Wedge Could Torpedo Down-Ballot Success

Dems Fear Trump Wedge Could Torpedo Down-Ballot Success
Christopher Dolan/The Times & Tribune via AP
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Hillary Clinton’s portrayal of Donald Trump as a GOP outlier is an invitation to Republicans and independents repelled by his rhetoric to seek refuge with the Democratic nominee. But the strategy could create additional legwork for Democrats down the ballot whose successes rely on super-gluing their opponents to their party’s nominee.

Vulnerable Republican congressional candidates could use the wedge Clinton is driving into their party as an affirmation of their own strategy to distance themselves from Trump where they can.

“You have Republicans up for re-election trying to run away from Trump as much as they can, so I think the smart move would be to lash them together to the extent possible to drag all of them down,” says Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. “The goal is to make the Republican Party as toxic as possible, to make it one big dumpster fire that they can't run away from.”

Democrats have differing opinions on whether separating Trump from his party provides a lifeline to at-risk Republican candidates or places additional pressure on them to disavow his rhetoric.

Some say the strategy isn’t mutually exclusive. The Clinton message “is not so much saying Trump is an outlier amongst GOP candidates, but is an outlier amongst GOP voters,” says Mo Elleithee, a Democratic strategist and executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service. “And any candidate that has endorsed him, they are more a Trump Republican than a mainstream Republican.”

The Clinton campaign figures that painting the GOP with the Trump brush would normalize a candidate far out of the mainstream, which is does not want to do, as that risks alienating voters who may be inclined to the Democrats’ side because of Trump. But some party veterans see a winning strategy up and down the ballot in arguing that Trump is the spawn of the Republican Party.  

“We would basically have to throw out our entire frame that the GOP made Trump through years of divisive and ugly politics,” wrote former DNC official Luis Miranda in a May email released by WikiLeaks. “We can't give down ballot Republicans such an easy out. We can force them to own Trump and damage them more by pointing out that they're just as bad on specific policies, make them uncomfortable where he's particularly egregious.”

Yet that strategy carries risks, too. “If you paint the Republican Party with a broad brush you run the risk of turning away voters who are disgusted by Trump. In order for us to win a number of House districts, we are going to have to pick up Republican voters,” a senior Democratic official told RealClearPolitics. “Trump is an anvil around the neck of Republican incumbents, but Democrats are not solely relying on him to win.”

Clinton’s efforts to draw a contrast between Trump and his party on the issue of race could put pressure on Republican incumbents and challengers to distance themselves from their nominee. “It forces down-ballot Republicans into a real dilemma and one they haven't figured out yet. It gets into a question of leadership and political courage,” the official said.

The Clinton team is pushing the leadership question onto Republicans. The campaign held a conference call with reporters on Tuesday with Reps. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, Javier Becerra of California, and Nita Lowey of New York to pressure House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell to disavow Trump. “All congressional Republicans should denounce his candidacy. It is really shameful that a major political party ... would countenance the kind of bigotry we have seen from Donald Trump and his campaign,” Lowey said.

“My parents were Republicans. I grew up at a time when most African-Americans were members of the party of Lincoln, and I take offense to Mr. Trump making himself a member of the party of Lincoln,” Clyburn said when asked about Clinton’s strategy. But, he also speculated as to why members of the alt-right movement have gravitated to the GOP. “They see some solace over there.”

Portraying all GOP candidates as racist or bigoted could turn off an electorate already exhausted by the tone and tenor of this campaign season and the divisive nature of the political system. Clinton has separated Trump from the GOP on the issue of race and hatred, but not on issues and policy differences. “We need good debates, but we need to do it in a respectful way, not finger pointing and blaming and stirring up this bigotry and prejudice,” Clinton said in her speech in Nevada last week.

President Obama has emphasized Trump’s similarities to the GOP, as well as differences between the two.

During a press conference in March, Obama blamed Republicans for “feeding” their base rhetoric that ultimately resulted in Trump’s nomination. He argued that on policy, Trump and the GOP weren’t that far apart. “Mr. Trump might just be more provocative in terms of how he says it, but the actual positions aren’t that different,” he said, referring to immigration in particular.   

At the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, Obama drew a distinction between Trump and the GOP on a vision of America. “What we heard in Cleveland last week wasn't particularly Republican – and it sure wasn't conservative,” he said. “What we heard was a deeply pessimistic vision of a country where we turn against each other, and turn away from the rest of the world.”

During a press conference in August, Obama explained his approach, calling on the GOP to question how the celebrity businessman came to be the party’s nominee. “What does this say about your party that this is your standard-bearer?” he said. “There has to come a point at which you say, ‘Enough.’ And the alternative is that the entire party, the Republican Party, effectively endorses and validates the positions that are being articulated by Mr. Trump.” 

It’s a question Democratic candidates are posing to their Republican opponents in various races. In Ohio, for example, Senate candidate Ted Strickland recently released an ad to that effect. “We all know what Donald Trump has said about women. So how can Rob Portman still support him?” the narrator says.

The Ohio race, though, shows the strategy isn’t one-size-fits-all. Portman has been consistently leading Strickland in polls, even though Trump trails slightly behind Clinton. This week, Democrats have suspended advertising in support of Strickland to focus on other races.

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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