But now that it's time for Democrats to put their money where their mouth is, they don't seem nearly as bullish on that strategy. We're at a point in the election when millions of dollars in attack ads are going up on airwaves in congressional and Senate races across the country, and it's still an open question of whether Trump will play a starring role in Democrats' ads.
Which means it's also an open question of whether Trump is actually the drag on Hill Republicans that Democrats had hoped he would be.
So far, Senate Democrats have tied just four GOP Senate candidates to Trump in TV ads — in New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio and Arizona. In North Carolina, a race that is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in the nation, Democrats have yet to run a Trump ad against the vulnerable Sen. Richard Burr (R).
It's a jarring difference in tone from earlier this year, when Democrats like Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) threw out the notion that Trump could drag down Senate races by as much as eight percentage points, and Senate Democrats' campaign arm launched a new website declaring Republicans "the party of Trump."
Fast forward to October, and some Democratic operatives are publicly questioning Trump's effectiveness as a message for them in certain districts. Some even wonder whether Trump's out-there-ness might be working to Republicans' advantage.
Recently, a Democratic House super PAC shared research with Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank that suggested talking about Trump in competitive congressional districts doesn't always work. In some cases, it even backfires by causing independent and GOP voters to have a lower opinion of Hillary Clinton.
"It’s a raging debate,” House Majority PAC director Alixandria Lapp told Milbank. “Do you say that every Republican equals Trump, and they’re just like Trump? Or is that not believable, and it doesn’t really work?"
House Democrats' campaign arm seems to be the exception to this trend. They are doubling down on ads tying Trump to vulnerable Republicans in suburban Minneapolis, Northern Virginia and northern New Jersey. In fact, roughly half their ads so far have focused on Trump.
"He is the beginning and the end of the conversation about this election for voters, and we are … making sure that Republicans don’t try to run away from him," Kelly Ward, the director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told the Hill this week.
But Republican congressional operatives say: Bring on the Trump attacks, because it won't work.
Senate Republicans have tried to keep Trump at arm's length while still supporting him, and there is evidence their exhaustive dance is working. A September Washington Post analysis found that Senate Republicans in eight of the top 10 most competitive races are polling on average four points better than Trump. (A post-presidential debate analysis by Roll Call came away with similar findings.)
"Where are the 40, 50, 60 House races that Democrats said could be competitive because of Trump?" Republicans are asking. The races that were going to be a knockdown battle before Trump was the nominee are still more or less the playing field today.
"We're not seeing it move numbers, as of right now," said Katie Martin with House Republicans' campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Democrats say the Trump effect is still potentially deadly for Republicans, but they acknowledge it may be a weapon most effective in combination with others. They also say it was never their strategy to just use the strategy everywhere in the country — just a significant chunk of it. And Democratic polling shows many undecided and independent voters are completely appalled by Trump — especially after the week where he gave a poor debate performance and mocked the weight and sex life of a Latina beauty queen.
On the Senate side, Democrats think their strategy of talking about how dangerous Trump is to Republicans is working even without having to buy TV ads. They point to a trend of some Senate Republicans' favorability ratings dropping off — sometimes by double digits — over the past year as they've talked incessantly about how Republicans like Rep. Joseph J. Heck in Nevada and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey in Pennsylvania support Trump. But those races are still toss-ups.
And so, with barely a month to go, there's still a lot of strategy to be determined in the battle for the House and Senate — including the biggest strategic question of all: how much Trump will factor into the Democratic homestretch pitch.