GOP vulnerables dial back Hillary attacks

Vulnerable Senate Republicans running in states where Hillary Clinton is up in the polls have pulled their punches against the Democratic nominee, knowing they’ll need help from some of her supporters to survive on Election Day.

{mosads}While Democrats have made an all-out effort in these states to bash Donald Trump and tie incumbent Senate GOP candidates to the billionaire businessman at the top of the ticket, Republicans have recently gone soft on Clinton — opting to focus on their own records and the needs of their states.

In Ohio, Sen. Rob Portman’s (R) campaign has recruited people at Clinton rallies to sign up for pro-Portman yard signs and has touted his union endorsements.

Portman, who says he’s not voting for Trump, has voiced criticism of Clinton over her handling of the 2012 Benghazi attacks and her policy toward Russia during her time as secretary of State. But his campaign has put more effort into identifying issues, such as toxic algae blooms near Toledo, that are obscure but important to independent and swing voters in parts of the state.

Portman raised eyebrows earlier this month by circulating a political mailer avowing he knows “we are stronger together,” language that echoed Clinton’s campaign slogan. A GOP strategist familiar with the campaign, however, maintained the similarity in language was a coincidence.

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Pat Toomey (R) has released a new ad highlighting the praise he’s received from Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who has touted Toomey’s “seriousness, intellect and civility.”

In Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio (R) has declared he’s not interested in pouncing on embarrassing revelations about Clinton’s campaign made public by WikiLeaks. His campaign website this week also proudly displayed the members of the “Democrats for Marco” coalition.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), meanwhile, eschews presidential politics on her campaign website. Instead, she stresses bipartisanship, claiming she breaks through “gridlock” to deliver results for New Hampshire. 

“Their political dilemma is that if Trump is unqualified to be president, Clinton is the only real alternative left and they cannot tout her. So, their strategy is to localize and personalize the race in the hope of insulating themselves from what seems increasingly likely to be a Clinton win,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

This summer, Republicans were more willing to take shots at Clinton. 

Rubio, for example, in August questioned during a CNN interview how his challenger, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.), could stand with Clinton “when over and over again she has proven to be untrustworthy.”

Since then, Trump’s poll numbers have plummeted, and political strategists are predicting Clinton will win most of the battleground states, including Florida, where she has a steady 4-point lead.

John Weaver, a GOP strategist who worked on Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s presidential campaign, said Trump has separated his own candidacy from the Republican Party, putting other GOP candidates in awkward positions.  

“When you have to live, thrive and survive in that kind of environment, it makes sense you’re reaching out to those people who are supporting Secretary Clinton or [Libertarian Party nominee] Gary Johnson,” he added.

“Since Rubio’s not running against Hillary, why would he be attacking her?” he asked.

Earlier this year, Clinton almost exclusively focused on Trump and rarely mentioned down-ballot Republicans. That has started to change in 2016’s homestretch.

Stumping in Florida on Tuesday, Clinton took dead aim at Rubio, a former rival of Trump’s for the GOP nomination: “Unlike his opponent, Patrick Murphy has never been afraid to stand up to Donald Trump.” She has also ripped Ayotte and Toomey over the past week.

“Hillary is going to win Pennsylvania by 9 points. Pat Toomey wants people who are voting for Hillary,” said a Republican strategist familiar with the party’s strategy in battleground states.

Toomey knocked his opponent, Katie McGinty, at a debate this week by suggesting she and Clinton both have a problem with the truth.

“Maybe it’s Katie McGinty’s problem with the truth that allows her to overlook Hillary Clinton’s chronic lies,” Toomey said.

A spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said Toomey is playing both sides by running an ad in Democratic-leaning Philadelphia featuring Kaine’s praise of Toomey while also airing an ad in more rural areas criticizing Clinton.

A 15-second spot running in Wilkes-Barre declares, “Clinton should not have a blank check with our jobs and our security.”

But more broadly, Toomey has gone after McGinty far more than Clinton.

Toomey distanced himself from Trump in a recent ad in which he told viewers “I have a lot of disagreements with Donald Trump” and argued “what’s important for Pennsylvanians is having a senator who will stand up to any president’s bad ideas.” The TV spot made no mention of Clinton.

A new U.S. Chamber of Commerce ad running in New Hampshire lauds Ayotte as someone who “works across the aisle to get things done” and praises her independence as a “strong voice in the U.S. Senate” regardless of which party controls the White House. That ad also didn’t invoke Clinton’s name.

Political observers say Trump makes it tougher for Republican candidates to attack Clinton.

“I think it’s this triangle of perception,” said Grant Reeher, the director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University. “The fact that some candidates are not taking advantage of that messaging … it’s all being driven by Trump. 

“If you would have had someone like Gov. John Kasich [as the nominee], they could have easily taken some shots at her,” he said. “The question of whether to get into negative messaging about the candidate at the top of the ticket all depends upon the popularity of the message in your state. My sense is that I think you probably would have found a lot of Republicans in 2008 who didn’t want to run against [then-Sen. Barack] Obama because of his popularity.”

The story’s different in Missouri, another Senate battleground with a vulnerable Republican incumbent, where Trump is ahead in the polls.  

A new ad launched by the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC linked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), explicitly links the Democratic candidate to Clinton.

“It’s surprising how many ways Jason Kander is just like Hillary Clinton: constantly running for public office, voting against tax relief, mishandling public money, allowing tax dollars for illegal immigrants, defending ObamaCare,” the narrator says.

Republican strategists say it’s smarter for GOP incumbents to keep the focus on their opponents’ vulnerabilities instead of broadening the scope to include Clinton. That’s what Ayotte, Toomey, Portman, Rubio and Sen. Richard Burr (R), who’s running for reelection in North Carolina, have done.

Burr has focused on former state Rep. Deborah Ross’s controversial positions on flag burning and a sex offender registry while working at the ACLU instead of trying to tie her to Clinton, who has a slight lead in North Carolina, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. 

Joe DiSipio contributed. Updated at 11:43 a.m.

Tags Donald Trump Gary Johnson Hillary Clinton Kelly Ayotte Marco Rubio Mitch McConnell Richard Burr Rob Portman Tim Kaine

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