Trump ticket looms over vulnerable GOP senators

Trump ticket looms over vulnerable GOP senators
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The looming prospect of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York state Senate candidate charged in riot Trump called acting attorney general almost daily to push election voter fraud claim: report GOP senator clashes with radio caller who wants identity of cop who shot Babbitt MORE at the top of the GOP ticket and leading the party’s national fundraising effort will put vulnerable senators in a tough spot.

Accepting aid from the Republican Party would be a financial boon for these senators but would also open them up to severe criticism from their Democratic opponents. Steering clear of the presidential nominee entirely, though, could put them in a financial hole as they struggle to hold the party’s fragile majority and, at the same time, make a public statement about the unfavorable image of the party’s nominee.

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With that trade-off in mind, campaign staffers are struggling to answer the question of whether their candidates should disavow Trump as he marches toward the nomination.

“That’s the question everyone is struggling with,” a Republican aide in a tight Senate race told The Hill. “It’s a question we ask ourselves every day. I don’t know.”

Democrats, however, aren’t wasting any time tying these incumbents to Trump, pouncing on Sunday’s comments by top Trump aide Paul Manafort that the real estate mogul will raise money for the GOP and its down-ballot candidates.

“He will work with leaders of the Republican Party and various committees to help raise money for them as part of the overall ticket,” Manafort said on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” specifically noting the goal of keeping the GOP’s majorities in the House and Senate.

That help, which is standard for a nominee of either party, could spark trouble for Republicans during this tumultuous cycle.

Vulnerable GOP senators already find themselves walking a tightrope. Most have said they’d back Trump as the nominee while also distancing themselves from the controversial front-runner.

Asked in an interview last week with WKXL radio in Concord, N.H., whether she is ready to “embrace” Trump, vulnerable GOP Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyottePoll: Potential Sununu-Hassan matchup in N.H. a dead heat  Democrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal Sununu seen as top recruit in GOP bid to reclaim Senate MORE responded, “I’ve said from the beginning that I will support the Republican nominee, and so we’ll see who comes out of the convention.”

When asked to define “support,” such as whether she’d campaign with Trump, she responded, “I’m going to be focusing on my own race … regardless of what happens at the top of the ticket, I’ll be campaigning for my own reelection.”

The New Hampshire Democratic Party, however, sent an email Monday questioning whether Ayotte will accept donations from Trump, a candidate with “dangerous policy proposals and offensive rhetoric.” Ayotte will likely face Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan in one of the toughest races this year.

Manafort’s remarks underscore a willingness for Trump to be a team player and boost fundraising for groups like the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). The Senate Republican campaign arm says it won’t shy away from his support if he offers it.

“We welcome fundraising support from all corners of the Republican Party to ensure we have the resources necessary not only to fight against misleading attacks, but also to show voters that the Republican majority is working,” NRSC spokeswoman Alleigh Marre said.

Republicans have long been preparing a contingency plan for if Trump is the nominee. NRSC Executive Director Ward Baker outlined in a memo last year that candidates should embrace his anti-Washington agenda but warned about getting in the crosshairs of his controversial remarks. His advice: Run localized races.

Campaigning and fundraising with the top of the ticket can yield big contributions for down-ballot candidates.

But some caution that profiting from a partnership with Trump might end up costing them just as much.

“A lot of them are going to look at it as a wash, that any money that Trump helps them raise they’re going to have to use to counter attacks from taking money from Trump,” Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. 

“Even accepting money from Trump will be subject to television ads and social media gibes and all kinds of things that create a kind of negative publicity that incumbents can’t really use right now.”

Strategists say not to expect vulnerable incumbents to gravitate to Trump if he extends a hand, but how reluctant they are could depend on their campaigns’ financial states.

“If you’re desperate for money, if fundraising isn’t going well, I’d venture to guess a lot of candidates will take it,” Arizona GOP consultant Chris Baker said.

Senators with strong fundraising starts, such as Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanThe 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal Trump slams Romney, Senate GOP over infrastructure deal MORE in Ohio, could be less inclined to risk help from Trump. Toomey has $9 million on hand, while Portman has nearly $13.5 million in the bank.

But on the flip side, Sens. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGrassley pressured to run as Democrats set sights on Iowa Sunday shows preview: Bipartisan infrastructure talks drag on; Democrats plow ahead with Jan. 6 probe Democrats question GOP shift on vaccines MORE (R-Wis.) and Mark KirkMark Steven KirkDuckworth announces reelection bid Brave new world: Why we need a Senate Human Rights Commission  Senate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls MORE (R-Ill.) are running much closer to their Democratic challengers — former Sen. Russ Feingold and Rep. Tammy Duckworth, respectively. Feingold has nearly $1 million more in the bank than Johnson has, while Kirk trails Duckworth by about $700,000.

Democrats are predictably licking their chops at any way to link Trump to their targets in the Senate.

To Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the link is well-earned because those incumbents “bare some responsibility for helping to drive their party in the direction that would allow the nomination of someone like Donald Trump.”

She framed accepting fundraising assistance from a Trump-led Republican party as tacit approval, adding that creating distance will be tough if candidates rely on Trump to fill their bank accounts.

“I don’t envy the position they are in, but for them to try to go through the torturous exercise of excusing the reason to accept Trump money, but at the same time suggesting they are going to continue to make their races localized, that requires logical leaps I am not capable of,” she said.  

The Senate Republican campaign aide pushed back on the idea that a link to the party front-runner will only hurt Republicans, noting that Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote Women's March endorses Nina Turner in first-ever electoral endorsement MORE’s favorability ratings are lower than a typical nominee’s as well.

“It’s a rudimentary playbook, and they are putting a lot into it with the hopes that these Trump ties will ultimately work out,” the aide said. 

But while Republican Senate campaigns are apprehensive about the damage Trump could do down the ballot, the aide argued it’s too early to tell the result. 

“You’ve seen in states where you’ve had record level of engagements in the primary process, so you look at those benchmarks and you see great strength and great promise,” the aide from the tight Senate race told The Hill.

“And then you look at [Trump’s] favorable/unfavorable ratings, and you scratch your head and wonder how this all plays out.“