Ayotte’s gaffe came on a sensitive subject in a sensitive time in a sensitive race. Trump has fallen well behind Clinton in national and key state polls following a dismal performance in the first presidential debate last month and a series of subsequent controversies, including his attacks on a former beauty queen and revelations that he reported a $916 million loss on his 1995 tax returns and might not have paid tax for nearly two decades after.
Nonetheless, Republican operatives continue to believe that the party’s congressional majorities can survive a close Trump loss, and they are not yet hitting the panic button — that is, openly counseling GOP candidates to break with the top of the ticket. But several said this week that the second presidential face-off on Sunday is a crucial moment.
“When [Trump] got his act together, started focusing on the issues and became the candidate of change once again, you could see the entire Republican ticket rise all through September,” said GOP pollster Frank Luntz. “Until this last debate.”
Public polls released since Trump’s post-debate tailspin have not yet shown a major impact on key Senate races or the generic congressional ballot question that tends to be the most reliable indicator in the battle for the House. Democrats need to flip five seats to claim the Senate majority — four if Clinton wins, allowing running mate Tim Kaine to cast tie-breaking votes — and they need a net gain of 30 seats to retake control of the House.
Several incumbent GOP senators continue to run several points ahead of Trump; a Monmouth University poll released Tuesday, for instance, had Clinton with a 10-point lead in Pennsylvania but found the race between Sen. Pat Toomey (R) and former state official Katie McGinty (D) to be tied. A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll published Thursday had Clinton edging Trump by two points — but Ayotte leading Hassan by six points.
Democratic operatives, meanwhile, say internal polls taken since the presidential debate have shown encouraging trends, but that the Senate races remain tight in key battlegrounds.
And high-profile missteps like Ayotte’s have proven to be the exceptional case, not the typical one. Trump has emerged as a central issue in only a handful of Senate races, and it is yet to be seen how close his presence atop the GOP ticket will get Democrats to reclaiming the House.
Only in four states — Arizona, New Hampshire, Nevada and Ohio — have Democratic candidates or their allies funded television ads that link GOP Senate candidates to Trump. Instead, races are largely being fought on familiar ground on a state-by-state, district-by-district basis, with messages largely tailored to the specific candidates, issues and political climates.
That reflects the fact that loyal Republicans have become more comfortable with Trump as their party’s nominee, a shift of the Senate battleground into redder states, and — Ayotte’s slip aside — a notable display of discipline from GOP Senate candidates who have been peppered with Trump questions for months.
“They wanted to run a race about their vision and contrast it with their opponents, not simply hitch their wagon to whatever the national environment might bring,” said Josh Holmes, a Republican political consultant with close ties to Senate GOP leaders. “That is a concerted effort that just about every successful campaign so far has implemented extremely diligently.”
Trump has emerged as a significant issue in states where Democrats are making a significant push to reach smaller slices of the electorate that view Trump negatively.
In Nevada, Hispanic and Mormon voters could swing a Senate race that pits Catherine Cortez Masto, the Democratic former attorney general, against Republican Rep. Joe Heck. A recent Masto ad contrasted Heck’s support for Trump with the skepticism aired by two well-known statewide Republicans, Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Dean Heller.
In other states, the Trump attacks surfaced in ads trained on suburban women, a key voting bloc. Planned Parenthood’s political arm took aim at Ayotte with an August ad claiming she and Trump are “united against our right to safe and legal abortion.” In Ohio, former Gov. Ted Strickland targeted at incumbent Sen. Rob Portman for having “endorsed a man for president who doesn’t respect women at all.”
Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, seeking to unseat Sen. John McCain, is targeting both Hispanics and a wider audience of voters disaffected by Trump in recent ads — the former with a Spanish-language ad declaring “él ha cambiado” — “he has changed” — and the latter with an English ad highlighting Trump’s antics alongside video of McCain pledging to support him.
But in other battlegrounds like Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina, candidates are largely sparring about resumes and records. And in Missouri and Indiana, if there’s a presidential candidate at issue, it’s Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who trails Trump considerably both those states.
In several of those races, Republican candidates are facing serious headwinds not related to Trump. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), for instance, is struggling to jumpstart a lackluster campaign and overcome voter dissatisfaction with the GOP on the state level. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is facing a young, energetic challenger in Secretary of State Jason Kander who is seizing on Blunt’s long tenure in Washington.
Sadie Weiner, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said her party’s candidates are “forcing vulnerable Senate Republicans to defend not only their support for Donald Trump, but their long records of working against their states’ best interests whether that’s protecting tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas, defunding Planned Parenthood, or increasing their net worth while opposing a bill to ban insider trading for members of Congress.”
Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Republicans are meanwhile “running sheriff-type races” and “making a concerted effort not to get caught up in the cable news presidential drama.”
Still, Democrats believe a prolonged Trump slump could help boost their longshot bid to regain control of the House. Voters typically select House candidates with the same party affiliation as their presidential candidate of choice. Democrats are focusing intently on courting independents and undecided voters in the well-educated suburban districts where Clinton is expected to dominate.
“The House races are rising and falling with the presidential,” said Meredith Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Republicans acknowledge that while some Trump-linked ads may be effective in states like Florida and Illinois, nationwide polling so far does not suggest a Democratic wave in the making. “Our polling numbers are looking good at the House level,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Katie Martin.
Taking back the House is an exceedingly difficult task for Democrats, even if Clinton dominates in the majority of battleground states. With a 30-seat swing necessary, both House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said last week they expect the gains to be closer to 20 seats.
Democrats still hope to close the gap by taking out sitting Republicans in heavily populated suburban areas in states like Florida, Illinois, California and Virginia. The well-funded DCCC has recently started rolling out ads that tie incumbent Republicans to Trump on everything from Planned Parenthood to off-shore oil drilling. “The message that resonates with those people the most that we’ve seen in our data is Trump,” Kelly said.
In Florida, Democrats are also hoping to take advantage of the state’s recent redistricting. Last year the Florida Supreme Court approved a new congressional map that put two GOP incumbents, Reps. Carlos Curbelo and John Mica, at risk. A recent DCCC ad reminded voters that Mica, a Trump supporter, once “said marital rape should be legal.” Another ad tied Curbelo, the son of Cuban exiles, to Trump’s hard-line stance on immigration.
A senior Democratic campaign aide who requested anonymity to speak frankly about strategy said while the party hasn’t “put all of our eggs in the Trump basket,” the unpredictable businessman still has the power to swing down-ballot races in an instant: “The problem for the Republicans has been, Trump might look good one day, but God only knows what he will tweet in the middle of the night.”
But Republicans could be aided by early voting, which has already begun in many states, reducing the potential for late-breaking news or advertising to create huge swings.
“The closer you get to the election, the harder it is to change momentum,” Luntz said. “More and more people have their minds made up, and so less and less people are willing to change.”