Less than a year out from Election Day, Senate Republicans are nervously watching the twists and turns of the presidential primary, worried it could cost them their majority in November.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellSenate confirms first nominees of Trump era The new Washington elite schmoozes over lunch Trump takes first official acts at signing ceremony MORE (R-Ky.) has made it his strategy to focus voters’ attention on this year’s accomplishments of Congress and away from the presidential circus.
He’s going to try to do that again in 2016 even though election years are not usually productive on Capitol Hill and media attention will be riveted to the campaign trail.
McConnell will try to make Senate Republicans their own story next year.
“I don't think we ought to take the view that we're not gonna do much next year simply because there's an election,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill.
Senate Republicans are careful not to criticize the leading candidates publicly, but they’re creating distance, knowing the battle for the Senate will be won or lost in moderate swing states such as Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
The worst-case scenario for Republicans would be if Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWashington Post reporter compares DC rioters to Boston Tea Party Women's march reaches Antarctica Steinem: If Trump creates Muslim registry, we'll all register MORE, the front-runner for months now, were to win the GOP nomination, say GOP strategists. But Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzTrump's America: Businessmen in, bureaucrats out When Trump says 'Make America Great Again,' he means it Booker is taking orders from corporate pharmaceuticals MORE (R-Texas) atop the ticket wouldn’t be much better.
They fear either candidate would turn off independent voters and energize liberals to show up to the polls.
“Every Republican who is up in 2016 is as nervous as a Christmas goose and hopeful that somehow Trump is eliminated one way or the other as early as possible in 2016 and that Cruz ultimately is not the nominee either,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “There’s a great deal of wishful thinking going on that there will be some kind of intervention that will spare them.”
Political handicappers, such as Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, still give Republicans a slight edge because they have strong incumbents running a healthy four-seat majority, but much depends on the outcome of the tumultuous White House race.
“I don’t see their path to keeping the majority if he is the nominee,” Duffy said of Trump, adding that it would also be “problematic” if Cruz were the nominee.
“When we know the nominee we can assess those odds better than we can now,” she said.
Duffy says that “right now, with all things being equal,” Democrats have a “less than fifty-percent” chance of winning back the Senate.
Republicans hold a four-senate margin. If they lose the race for the White House, Democrats would recapture the upper chamber with a net gain of four seats because the president’s party casts the tie-breaking vote in a 50-50 Senate.
Democrats are trying to tie vulnerable Senate GOP incumbents to Trump and Cruz in a bid for swing voters.
“These candidates are still saying they will support Donald Trump if he’s the nominee. Trump’s toxic and offensive rhetoric is a serious problem for Republicans down ballot,” said Sadie Weiner, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).
“Even if they say they disagree with one or two of his policy positions. The Republican Party has become the party of Trump and if it’s not the party of Trump, then it’s the party of Ted Cruz, which Republicans seem just as concerned about,” she added.
Alleigh Marre, Weiner’s counterpart at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), emphasized McConnell’s track record of getting major legislation, such as the omnibus spending bill and a $680 billion tax deal through the Senate.
"Republicans are entering 2016 with an advantage [Senate Democratic Leader] Harry ReidHarry ReidThe DC bubble is strangling the DNC Dems want Sessions to recuse himself from Trump-Russia probe Ryan says Trump, GOP 'in complete sync' on ObamaCare MORE [Nev.] could never offer Democrats — a working Senate majority and the results to show for it,” she said.
GOP strategists say candidates who perform the best against Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton thanks protesters ahead of women’s march Pro-choice feminists can't take women's rights hostage Thousands expected for women's march Saturday MORE, the likely Democratic nominee, in hypothetical head-to-head polls will help Senate candidates the most.
Recent polls by CNN/ORC and Public Policy Polling, a liberal-leaning firm, show Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioGOP, Dems hear different things from Trump Senate committee to vote Monday on Tillerson Tillerson met with top State official: report MORE beating Clinton in a general election and Trump losing, both by a few points. The CNN/ORC poll had Cruz edging Clinton, and the PPP survey showed him losing by two points.
Democrats see the Illinois seat held by Sen. Mark KirkMark KirkGOP senator: Don't link Planned Parenthood to ObamaCare repeal Republicans add three to Banking Committee Juan Williams: McConnell won big by blocking Obama MORE (R) as their most likely pick-up opportunity followed by the Wisconsin seat held by Sen. Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonOvernight Healthcare: GOP governors defend Medicaid expansion GOP senator: Let's work with Dems to 'fix' ObamaCare Right renews push for term limits as Trump takes power MORE (R), where Democrat Russ Feingold is ahead in polls by 10 points.
Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania fall into the next tier of likely pickups, with no obvious ranking among them. The third tier of possible Democratic pickups include North Carolina and Missouri.
Republicans meanwhile have a chance to capture Democratic seats in Nevada, where Reid is retiring, and Colorado, where incumbent Sen. Michael BennetMichael BennetOvernight Finance: Scoop – Trump team eyes dramatic spending cuts | Treasury pick survives stormy hearing Mnuchin: Debt limit increase important, unclear on 'clean' hike Live coverage: Senators grill Trump's Treasury pick MORE (D-Colo.) has weak job approval numbers.
But Trump is providing a challenge to Senate Republicans.
McConnell distanced his conference from Trump earlier this month when, following a meeting with colleagues, he panned as “inconsistent with American values” Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country.
Sen. Rob PortmanRob PortmanHillary gives Bernie cool reception at Trump inaugural lunch GOP governors defend Medicaid expansion Senators introduce dueling miners bills MORE (R) of Ohio, who is in a close race with former Gov. Ted Strickland (D) said in September he intends to support the GOP nominee.
“I think the country’s in trouble, and I think if we don’t have new leadership and new policies, it’s hard to imagine it getting back on track,” he told The Hill, noting that electing Hillary Clinton or another Democrat would not bring about such a change.
This month he said Trump’s proposed Muslim ban “runs counter to our traditions.”
Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteTen rumored Trump Cabinet picks who didn't get a job Sasse, Perdue join Armed Services Committee Avid pilot among GOP senators joining Transportation committee MORE (N.H.), another vulnerable Republican who also says she’ll support the eventual nominee, has called a religious test for immigrants and visitors “inconsistent” with the First Amendment.
Republican strategists don’t expect Trump or Cruz to perform well in swing states in the general election and warn they could hurt Republican candidates down-ballot if they alienate independents and moderates.
“To the extent you have a candidate at the top of the ticket that has trouble competing in states that are purple states, that affects the entire ballot,” said Josh Holmes, a GOP strategist and former senior aide to McConnell.
McConnell said something similar before Congress adjourned for the year, warning, “Unless the nominee for president can carry purple states, he’s not going to get elected.”
GOP strategists, however, argue Trump and Cruz, or any other candidate with an unproven ability to win over swing voters, won’t inflict any lasting damage on the party if they fail to clinch the nomination.
“I don’t think the damage is done at all. A lot of it remains to be seen in who the ultimate nominee is. I don’t think primary wrangling has much impact on a general election down-ballot,” Holmes said.
“It certainly matters who the nominee is. If you’ve got a nominee that can’t compete in critical states, they’re not only not going to win the presidency but they’re going to drag the entire party down,” he added.
The good news for Republican incumbents is political experts view them as having an advantage over Democratic challengers on national security issues, which are becoming increasingly prominent.
Ayotte is a member of the Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees; Johnson is the chairman of the Homeland Security panel; Kirk is a former naval intelligence officer; Portman is a member of Homeland Security; and Sen. Richard BurrRichard BurrSenators introduce dueling miners bills Trump education pick to face Warren, Sanders Senate Intel panel to probe Trump team's ties to Russia MORE, who could face a tough race in North Carolina, is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“Democrats are flailing as they try to separate themselves from the toxic Obama/Clinton foreign policy 'strategy' that has threatened not only our nation's standing on the world, but our security at home," the NRSC’s Marre said.
“If [the election] turns on the war on ISIS, the president’s job performance on that is 60-percent negative and Hillary, except on a couple of small matters, is pretty much in line with what the president has done and she’s an architect of some of the earlier policies,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll based in Pennsylvania.
He said that could eclipse whatever damage some GOP strategists think Trump or Cruz may be inflicting on the party brand.
“That’s going to be transcendent. The direction of the country. The nature of President Obama’s job performance,” he said.