Back then Dole was the recently departed Senate majority leader who had just locked up the Republican presidential nomination. Lott (R-Miss.), his successor in the Senate, and Gingrich (R-Ga.), then the House speaker, spent the final months of the 1996 campaign trying to preserve their congressional majorities as Dole’s candidacy faded in the late summer and fall.
Lott made a two-pronged calculation — first that his Senate Republicans needed to produce results they could present to the voters, and, second, if reality suggested it, to run a campaign that positioned Senate Republicans as a check against the likelihood of a reelected President Bill Clinton. These days, Lott swears he wasn’t trying to “undermine” Dole in the presidential race.
“What I wanted to do was save the Senate,” Lott said in an interview this week. He did. Republican picked up two seats, going from 53 to 55.
Now, facing the prospect that presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump could enter the general election as a huge underdog, current Republican leaders believe they could replicate their 1996 strategy against another Clinton-led Democratic ticket. The hope is that they can also reproduce the results by running against the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, even if Trump’s campaign collapses later this year.
Recent polling shows the presidential race tightening, but Republicans signaled Wednesday their intention to run aggressively against Hillary Clinton, tying their opponents to the former secretary of state and every scandal from her family’s 25 years in the national spotlight.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee unveiled an ad campaign showing the images of several Democrats and labeled Clinton the “living embodiment of everything people hate about politics,” warning that she is Democratic Senate candidates’ “burden to bear.”
It’s almost certainly just an opening volley in a long campaign to take on Clinton and, to some degree, separate these Republican candidates from the presidential contest altogether.
“If I were running in 2016, I would be running as a check on the president, certainly on a President Clinton but I think even President Trump,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the No. 2 GOP leader, said in an interview this week. “Obviously he’s not what I’d call a traditional Republican.”
The idea is, at its core, that Hillary Clinton is not popular and that candidates, especially those running in a state that tilts toward her over Trump, shold present themselves as a curb on Clinton’s ability to run the executive branch. Cornyn went a step further by encouraging those Republicans to run as a check against both Clinton and Trump, given the presumptive GOP nominee’s inconsistencies on key policies.
“So I think serving as sort of the independent role of the Senate and the Congress, I think, that’s something that is imminently salable,” Cornyn said.
It’s also redux of 1996, the last modern version of a major ticket-splitting operation.
In the four presidential elections that followed Dole’s loss, the the winner of the popular vote also saw his own party win at least two additional Senate seats as the voters’ inclination to split partisan tickets faded. By 2012, as President Obama won his fairly competitive race, all 16 incumbents in the Democratic caucus running for reelection won their Senate seats.
What’s unclear now is whether, in this hyper-partisan era, any candidate from one party can distinguish his or her campaign from that of the presidential nominee at the top of the ticket.
The three Republican leaders from 1996 have remained friendly enough over the years — as their appearance for Roberts together at the Capitol Hill Club indicated — but back then there was tension. Lott still remembers a call from someone in Dole’s camp who he declines to name 20 years later: “You’re undermining us here by producing all these results,” the former leader recalled the Dole ally telling him back then.
Dole, after locking up the Republican nomination in the spring of 1996, retired from the Senate, and Lott succeeded him as majority leader. Democrats had practically shuttered the Senate, in part to deny Dole any victories.
“Everything was wrapped around the axle,” Lott recalled.
So, with real fears that Republicans could lose the Senate just two years after claiming it in the 1994 midterms, Lott cut a deal with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to raise the minimum wage and one with the Clinton administration on a sweeping change to welfare laws, among other big measures that summer.
Back when he was a rank-and-file senator, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ran for reelection that fall in a year that Bill Clinton narrowly won Kentucky. Yet McConnell comfortably won his race by thematically running as a candidate who would serve as a check against Clinton.
Looking at today’s Senate, Lott does not believe Republicans have done enough to demonstrate to voters that they should remain in charge regardless of who wins the Oval Office. McConnell’s effort to pass a modest energy bill, legislation to fight opioid abuse and appropriations shows a “little movement,” Lott said, but overall he does not see big results.
“That has no real bounce to it,” the former GOP leader said of recent legislative efforts. His advice is blunt: “Develop a message and an agenda — but I don’t see it.”
Cornyn said Lott’s criticism was unfair, given the differences between Bill Clinton in 1996 running for reelection and Obama in his eighth year in office. “We don’t have a president that is willing to work with us,” he said.
Instead, the Republican plan is to keep the focus largely on Hillary Clinton, hoping she can remain unpopular and weigh down the Democratic candidates challenging Republican incumbents in swing states likely to go to Clinton in November. That might give just enough voters pause and, on their second vote, click the Republican column to put a brake on the Clinton — or Trump — presidency.
“I can see a number of our candidates deciding they can run a race as an effective check on the executive branch,” Cornyn said.