Trump, Cruz, and the Coattails Problem

GOP campaign veterans game out the downballot effects of a controversial White House nominee.

Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois is one of the most endangered Republicans of the cycle.
AP Photo/M. Spencer Green
Alex Rogers
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Alex Rogers
Jan. 28, 2016, 8:01 p.m.

Steven Law is a Re­pub­lic­an cam­paign guru atop three mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar out­side groups fo­cused on tak­ing back the White House and keep­ing con­trol of Con­gress. Amid some dire in­tra-party cries that Don­ald Trump or Ted Cruz will win his party’s nom­in­a­tion and im­per­il the GOP’s grasp of the Sen­ate, Law has to ac­tu­ally pre­pare for the pos­sib­il­ity—and prosper.

But giv­en the strik­ing un­cer­tainty of this year’s Re­pub­lic­an race, Law’s groups—Amer­ic­an Cross­roads, Sen­ate Lead­er­ship Fund, and One Na­tion—have pushed back from Janu­ary to at least mid-March their im­port­ant mi­cro-tar­get­ing ef­forts to identi­fy and turn out voters in vari­ous sub­groups.

“We de­cided to push it back in an­ti­cip­a­tion of not know­ing who the nom­in­ee is or what the im­pact could be,” Law told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “We do think that the over­all en­vir­on­ment po­ten­tially shifts—not sure—but po­ten­tially shifts de­pend­ing on who the nom­in­ee is.”

The move un­der­scores how the volat­ile nature of the pres­id­en­tial race is already af­fect­ing down­bal­lot races. Should a Marco Ru­bio or Jeb Bush win, Law says, the na­tion­al play­book will be “some­what sim­il­ar” to the usu­al, fo­cused on mo­tiv­at­ing and turn­ing out the base and in­de­pend­ent swing voters, es­pe­cially wo­men. But if Trump or Cruz wins, Law adds, his groups might have to shift to fo­cus on “soft Demo­crats” and low-propensity voters.

Cruz, one of the most con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers of Con­gress, has con­sist­ently ar­gued that squishy Re­pub­lic­ans—Bob Dole, John Mc­Cain, Mitt Rom­ney—lost pres­id­en­tial elec­tions by fail­ing to mo­tiv­ate those voters. But some Re­pub­lic­an strategists think that a Cruz or Trump nom­in­a­tion would be a dis­aster and could cost them the Sen­ate. With Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats now more di­vided than they have been in dec­ades, the cor­rel­a­tion between pres­id­en­tial races and Sen­ate races has in­creased—and these strategists par­tic­u­larly scoff at Cruz’s strategy to rely upon a fired-up base. 

“Any can­did­ate who thinks that the way to win a na­tion­al elec­tion is to forgo any ef­fort to win swing or mod­er­ate voters is not liv­ing in real­ity—and that will cer­tainly hurt the down tick­et,” says Rob Jes­mer, a former ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans’ cam­paign arm, without nam­ing any par­tic­u­lar can­did­ate. “We’ve ba­sic­ally moved to par­lia­ment­ary elec­tions. … People vote straight-tick­et a lot.”

“The way I look at it is: Could Ted Cruz win a Sen­ate race in Illinois? I don’t think so,” says Josh Holmes, a former seni­or ad­viser to the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee. He notes that the state’s Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or, Mark Kirk, has “out­per­formed” the tick­et in the past.

The polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment fa­vors the Demo­crats. While the Demo­crats have to buck his­tory—rarely has the Sen­ate flipped con­trol in a pres­id­en­tial-elec­tion cycle—Re­pub­lic­ans have to de­fend 24 of 34 Sen­ate seats up this cycle and can lose only a net of four seats, should they win the pres­id­ency, to main­tain their con­trol of the cham­ber. The non­par­tis­an Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port notes five “toss-up” races, only one of which (Nevada) is cur­rently held by a Demo­crat.

Re­pub­lic­ans are quick to point out that Hil­lary Clin­ton’s fa­vor­ab­il­ity num­bers are weak—Law claims she’ll have “short­er coat­tails than a pant­suit.” And the Cruz and Trump cam­paigns can claim early polls show­ing them with­in strik­ing dis­tance of Clin­ton—and even ahead in cer­tain ones. Both, however, lag be­hind Ru­bio, who is a point be­hind Clin­ton in the latest Wall Street Journ­al/NBC poll.

While wait­ing to fig­ure out who will be­come their nom­in­ee, Law says that the most ef­fect­ive Sen­ate GOP can­did­ates, like Sens. Rob Port­man of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hamp­shire, are “hug­ging the ground,” fo­cus­ing on state is­sues like the heroin epi­dem­ic. That, and re­mem­ber­ing the first rule of Steph­en Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Ef­fect­ive People.

“The first habit is to fo­cus your en­ergy on your circle of in­flu­ence versus your circle of con­cern, which ba­sic­ally means you fo­cus your at­ten­tion on things you can af­fect rather than the things you worry about,” said Law.

It ap­pears the can­did­ates agree.

“For me, you could drive your­self crazy, in a tar­geted race like mine, of what will hap­pen,” Kirk told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “And I’m just fo­cused on the people of Illinois.”

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