There's evidence to suggest that running from Trump may not save House Republicans from getting swept away in a Clinton tsunami.
As my colleagues Kelsey Snell and Karoun Demirjian reported Tuesday, Democratic polling taken after the second presidential debate Sunday night shows a generic congressional Democrat up by 7 percentage points over a generic Republican. (Asking about which party voters will support over a specific candidate is one of the best ways to get the lay of the land in congressional races, because so few voters know who their congressional candidates are.)
Then when you tell those same voters the Republican candidate recently withdrew his or her support for Trump, support for the Democrat shoots up by 12 points. Tell those voters the GOP lawmaker continues to support Trump, and the Democrat is still up by 12 points. A lose-lose situation for Republicans, Democrats say.
It's also exactly the scenario that would allow Democrats to do what was once thought impossible: take back control of the House of Representatives from Republicans, who currently enjoy their biggest majority since World War II. Democrats need to net 30 seats to make that happen; Snell and Demirjian report they have their eye on about 50 in this post-hot-mic world.
But here's where Republicans think they have the edge. They think if their most vulnerable candidates can make the race about Clinton, not Trump, they can hang on even in the darkest of times.
According to Republican polling of the top 18 competitive House races, a plurality of voters want a member of Congress to oppose a President Hillary Clinton.
The suggestion is that, just like it did in '96, campaigning as a check and balance on a President Clinton is an effective strategy. That's because Clinton is disliked more than she is liked in every competitive district, according to Republican polling. Her problems with likability and trustworthiness are one of the reasons this presidential election has been competitive at all.
Since Friday, at least two House Republicans have put money behind this check-on-Clinton strategy.
In New York's 22nd District — an open, potentially swingy district that is on Democrats' watch list — House Republicans' campaign arm put up an ad attacking the Democratic candidate, Kim Myers, for being a “rubber-stamp liberal” for Clinton.
“That's why we need Claudia Tenney,” the narrator says, flashing to the Republican candidate. "She'll stand up to Hillary Clinton just like she's always stood up to Governor Cuomo."
And in Minnesota's 8th District, a swing district outside Minneapolis, Republican challenger Stewart Mills accuses Rep. Rick Nolan (D) in a TV ad of being a "blank check" for Clinton.
She hasn't mounted a TV ad yet, but Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah) — a red state that is no friend of Trump's right now — made her closing pitch in a debate Tuesday that she would be "a check and balance to whoever is the president."
Even before hot-mic-gate, GOP senators like John McCain (Ariz.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) were dropping hints in media interviews and ads that they'd be willing checks on President Clinton, suggesting their own polling showed it might be a winning strategy.
But just because it could work doesn't mean this is an ideal situation for Republicans. Ditching their presidential nominee with four weeks to go before an election where Congress could be on the line — especially when their nominee and his supporters aren't ready to be ditched — is a last resort. It essentially requires them to admit their candidate is going to lose and then be in the awkward position of campaigning on it.
And while some voters may hear "This candidate will be a check on Hillary Clinton," other voters might hear "This candidate will block any progress from getting done in Congress." Democratic polling across 30 congressional districts found 50 percent of voters want a Congress that works with Clinton to get things done.
Like we said, this isn't an ideal strategy for Republicans, but it's the only strategy they've got right now. And there's early evidence that in the now-tightening battle for control of the House, campaigning as if Clinton has already won the presidency could save some vulnerable Republicans their seats.