Can Robert Dold Run Away From Trump to Victory?

The Illinois Republican is doing all the right things, and opposes his party's nominee. But his district is very tough.

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
July 17, 2016, 8 p.m.

Ask Republicans to name a House candidate running a model campaign, and several point to a lawmaker who openly rejects the party’s presumptive nominee.

As Illinois Rep. Robert Dold fights to keep his Democratic-leaning district, he holds the notable distinction of being one of Donald Trump’s earliest critics. At the same time, national Republicans are holding up his ground game, strong fundraising, and local focus as hallmarks of a successful reelection strategy.

“With Bob, you have somebody who has demonstrated from his first campaign for Congress through his reelection campaign [how] to be an extraordinarily hard worker,” said Rob Simms, the executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “He does all the things that you ask for a member or a candidate to put themselves in the position to be successful.”

While Dold opposes his party’s leader in an unusually volatile election, his support from national Republicans underscores the latitude GOP leaders are giving congressional Republicans to run their own races. At a time when Democrats are already nationalizing the cycle, it also highlights how strongly Republicans are prizing hyper-local campaigns.

Democrats have identified his suburban Chicago seat as one of their ripest targets, emboldened by the higher turnout that a presidential year brings. They fielded a well-known nominee in former Rep. Brad Schneider, who represented the 10th District from 2013 to 2015, and they don’t believe Dold—or any other Republican candidate around the country—will truly be able to run away from Trump.

In a seat that leans strongly Democratic at the presidential level, Dold’s chief challenge is convincing voters to split their tickets. The voters in his highly educated and wealthy district have already demonstrated an independent streak.

“This is something that’s been a tradition of the 10th as far as I can remember,” Dold said in an interview. “They are looking for leadership.”

Dold was first elected to the district in 2010, before losing a close race to Schneider two years later. President Obama won the district by a stunning 17 points that cycle, while Schneider barely eked out a victory, 50.6 to 49.4 percent.

In November, Democrats contend that Dold will again face a fundamentally different electorate with younger and more diverse voters. That expanded turnout, they argue, will be far more friendly to Schneider, who is battling Dold for the third time.

“Brad Schneider is already up on Bob Dold, and the trends are coming our way,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Ben Ray Luján told reporters last week.

Earlier this month, NRCC Chairman Greg Walden said it is up to candidates to determine how they approach Trump.

“They get to make those choices,” Walden said at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.

Another Illinois Republican, Sen. Mark Kirk, in June became the first GOP senator to launch an anti-Trump TV ad, a tactic that Dold said he does not plan to follow in his race. Kirk, who held Dold’s seat for five terms, won his 2008 election by 5 points, even as Obama won the district by 27 points.

Republicans believe the success of Dold’s campaign isn’t necessarily tied to his rejection of Trump. They point to other benchmarks such as his strong fundraising, including his recent $858,000 haul that almost matched Kirk’s $1 million total. Schneider raised $681,000 over that period.

On the trail, Dold is emphasizing his moderate credentials. In Congress, he has broken with Republicans to oppose defunding Planned Parenthood and has called for a series of gun-control measures.

But Democrats are already trying to tie him to more conservative members of his party and to Trump.

Earlier this month, the DCCC began running anti-Trump ads in Dold’s district, along with nine others. One spot asks why Republicans have not stood up to “the bully,” while another questions how Republicans could back Trump. Neither directly attacks Dold.

“Bob Dold is supporting Paul Ryan’s agenda,” Schneider said in an interview. “Paul Ryan is supporting Trump’s agenda. There is, I think, a clear link of where the country will go if Donald Trump and Bob Dold are in office in 2017.”

For his part, Dold, who said he would not support Trump in December, predicted that voters will be able to distinguish his brand.

“We’ve been vocal right from the get-go,” Dold said. “They’re going to have a harder time trying to make that case.”

Both campaigns are readying for an expensive fight in the pricey Chicago media market.

The DCCC has booked more than $2.5 million with cable to target the district, while House Majority PAC, an outside Democratic group, reserved $979,000. The NRCC has slotted $3.6 million.

As Dold stares down a competitive contest, he is continuing to look beyond the presidential race. Like several of his vulnerable GOP colleagues, he is spending this week in his district, rather than at the Republican National Convention.

“Bob is successfully running his own campaign for reelection that doesn’t really have much to do with or incorporate the presidential election,” Simms said, “just as when he ran for reelection in 2012.”

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