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
Add to Briefcase
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.”

What We're Following See More »
Judge Blocks Aetna/Humana Merger
6 hours ago

A D.C. federal judge has blocked the proposed merger between health insurers Aetna and Humana, ruling that "the merger of Aetna and Humana would be likely to substantially lessen competition in markets for individual Medicare Advantage plans and health insurance sold on the public exchanges." In the deal, Aetna was set to buy Humana for $37 billion, but will now owe Humana a $1 billion break-up fee.

Trump Signs Executive Orders
8 hours ago
Rubio To Support Tillerson
9 hours ago
Trump To Nominate Heather Wilson Secretary of Air Force
9 hours ago

On Monday morning President Donald Trump announced his intention to nominate former congresswoman Heather Wilson to the post of secretary of the Air Force. If confirmed, Wilson, who is currently president of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, would become the first Air Force secretary to have graduated from the Air Force Academy.

Flynn Under Investigation For Communications With Russia
9 hours ago

"Michael Flynn, the National Security Adviser to President Trump, has been under investigation—and possibly still is—for what has been described as his 'repeated contacts' with a Russian official." Flynn's communications with Russia were being probed by the FBI, CIA, NSA, and Treasury Department. The probe was reportedly triggered by Flynn's phone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak on the day then-President Barack Obama announced new sanctions. It is unclear if the investigations will be continued following Donald Trump's inauguration.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.