As Mitt Romney’s standing in the polls slips, questions are emerging about whether the Republican presidential nominee may become a drag for the GOP down ticket.
Romney has plenty of time—and three nationally televised debates—during which he could recover. But on Wednesday, President Obama touched the 50 percent mark in Gallup’s tracking poll, holding a 50-44 percent advantage over Romney. A pair of Quinnipac/New York Times surveys showed the president with a 9-point lead in Florida and a 10-point advantage in Ohio. And polls last week had Obama opening a lead in Virginia as well.
Romney’s performance atop the ticket is critical for Republican chances of seizing control of the Senate. Some of the most competitive contests—in Nevada, Wisconsin, and Virginia, —are in presidential battleground states. And even in states expected to vote solidly Republican in the presidential contest, such as North Dakota and Montana, Republicans are counting on Romney to run up the score to put seats out of reach for the Democrats.
But this week, conservative Weekly Standard columnist Bill Kristol, citing generic party figures, floated the possibility of the GOP losing the House—an idea largely dismissed as fantasy talk in the political establishment. “Based on current polling, I don't think one can say that it's now out of the question,” he wrote.
Kristol’s piece may have been more motivational tactic than mathematical analysis. The Cook Political Report rates 228 House seats as solidly Republican, likely Republican, or leaning Republican. The GOP needs only 218 to maintain the majority.
Put another way, Democrats could win all of the seats that lean their direction plus sweep the 24 most-competitive races in the country and still fall well short of the majority. To take control—or, as Kristol put it, “wake up on the morning of November 7 to the prospect of ... Speaker Nancy Pelosi”—the Democrats would have to win all the races that lean their way (16) all Toss-Ups (24), and nearly two-thirds of GOP-leaning districts (11 of 17).
“It’s likely we’ll keep the House,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist and former spokesman for ex-Speaker Dennis Hastert. But he said that Kristol’s musings served an important purpose. “This is sounding the alarm bell.”
Romney’s slipping support is a timely reminder for House Republicans—including many freshmen who won in 2010 simply by being not an “Obama Democrat”—that the 2012 landscape is more complex, especially if Romney’s numbers continue to erode.
House Republican leaders huddled with rank-and-file members earlier this month to offer, as Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., the chief deputy whip, described it, “a word of caution.”
“You want to make sure if you’re a member that you’re paying attention and not underestimating anybody on the ballot running against you,” Roskam said.
If Romney does not bounce back, that could complicate some lawmakers’ reelection prospects, however.
Take Rep. Robert Dold of Illinois, who is already running in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. Every vote that Romney cedes to Obama is an additional crossover vote that Dold, who supports abortion rights, will need if he is to become a sophomore member.
If Romney’s numbers continue to sag, a key question is whether the donor community will jettison him for vulnerable congressional candidates such as Dold.
As far back as six months ago, conservative elites floated the idea of abandoning the GOP presidential ticket to focus on controlling Congress. Columnist George Will suggested it, even before Romney had formally seized the nomination. “Conservatives this year should have as their primary goal making sure Republicans wield all the gavels in Congress in 2013,” he wrote in March.
The idea never took hold. And the outside groups that have been pounding Obama on the airwaves, led by the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads and Crossroad GPS, show no sign of abandoning their nominee.
“We see Romney tied or within the margin in virtually all of the states he needs in order to win, and we’ll have our pedal to the metal on the presidential all the way through the end,” said Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio. The one-time National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman added that Crossroads’ internal polling contradicted the recent public surveys.
Whatever the actual figures, Bonjean said, “There are many Republicans across the country that are looking at Mitt Romney’s poll numbers and realizing they may not get the tailwind they’re looking for.”