Hillary Clinton is pouring $1 million into Indiana and Missouri in the campaign’s final weeks — not because the Democratic presidential nominee thinks she can carry those reliably Republican states, but because she believes that, with an extra push, Democrats can win the Senate and governors’ races there.
In Michigan, the Clinton campaign is propelling a late surge by Democratic state legislative candidates to regain their House majority. In parts of Maine, Nebraska, Virginia and other states, Clinton volunteers are touting Democratic congressional candidates in their phone calls and fliers to voters. And as Clinton rallied supporters across Pennsylvania on Saturday with running mate Tim Kaine, she touted Senate hopeful Katie McGinty and attacked her GOP opponent, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, as beholden to presidential nominee Donald Trump.
“Katie is exactly the kind of partner we need in the Senate,” Clinton said at a Pittsburgh rally. “We have got to get things done for the people of Pennsylvania and America. And Katie will help us break through the gridlock, actually make a difference in people’s lives.”
Emboldened by polls predicting an electoral-college landslide in the presidential race, Clinton is shifting her strategy to lift up other Democrats coast to coast. She and her party are rushing to capitalize on a turbulent turn in Trump’s candidacy, which has ruptured the Republican Party, to make down-ballot gains that seemed unlikely just a month ago.
For Clinton, the move is opportunistic and has governing implications. If elected, a mandate may not be enough for her to muscle a progressive agenda on immigration and other issues through a Republican-controlled Congress. She would almost certainly govern more efficiently with Democratic majorities.
“Hillary recognizes, as we look at the past eight years, how important it is to have allies and like-minded elected officials who can just help get things done,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said.
Flush with cash, the Clinton campaign is steering resources and deploying thousands of field staffers and volunteers to help Democrats secure the Senate majority and pick up seats in the House. It also is targeting a handful of governorships and state legislative races where wins could give the party an advantage in redrawing congressional districts following the 2020 Census.
Mook estimates the campaign has spent more than $100 million, in coordination with the Democratic National Committee, to benefit other Democrats.
“As we’re traveling in these last 17 days, we’re going to be emphasizing the importance of electing Democrats down the ballot,” Clinton told reporters Saturday night.
The shift is evident not only in Clinton’s spending decisions, but also in her message. For months, Clinton talked about Trump as a singular threat, frustrating other Democratic leaders who saw an opportunity to turn voters’ revulsion toward Trump into a broader rejection of the Republican Party. They argued that years of GOP extremism and strident opposition to President Obama had paved the way for Trump’s nomination.
But Clinton is starting to adjust her message slightly to condemn the GOP writ large — and Obama is doing so more pointedly, shaming Republican politicians who have stood by Trump as he mocked and denigrated Americans over their gender, race or religion. Obama’s target last Thursday was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has been favored to win reelection.
“How can you call [Trump] a ‘con artist’ and ‘dangerous,’ and object to all the controversial things he says, and then say, ‘But I’m still going to vote for him’? ” Obama said at a Clinton rally in Miami Gardens, Fla. “C’mon, man.”
Recent polls show Rubio’s race against Democrat Patrick Murphy tightening to a dead heat. Still, Democrats have withdrawn most of their financial support. With 10 media markets, Florida is one of the most expensive states in which to advertise, and party officials calculated their money is better spent elsewhere.
Democrats are well-positioned to win the Senate majority. There are nine competitive Senate races — eight of which Republicans are defending, most in presidential swing states. Democrats need to net at least four seats to control the chamber if Clinton wins the presidency, in which case Kaine would serve as the tiebreaker.
Steve Schmidt, a top strategist for George W. Bush’s and John McCain’s presidential campaigns, said Republican senators can hang on if Trump loses their states narrowly — but that a Trump loss of eight or 10 or more percentage points could spell defeat.
“It’s the difference between falling out a second-floor window and a ninth-floor window,” Schmidt said. “One of them, you might break an ankle; the other one, you’re probably going to die.”
In the House, Democrats face a much taller order. To win the majority they would need to flip 30 seats, which party strategists concede is unlikely because it would require both a surge in Democratic turnout to 2008 and 2012 levels as well as a depressed Republican vote. Democratic leaders, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), have suggested a 20-seat gain would be a good outcome.
As of Friday, the party’s two largest House campaign organs — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the House Majority PAC, a super PAC aligned with Democratic leaders — had reserved airtime in only 31 Republican-held districts. Three seats now in GOP hands are expected to flip without an influx of national money.
But Democrats are also playing defense in seven districts they hold. If they keep all seven seats, they still would need to win nearly 90 percent of the remaining contests to secure the majority. Ali Lapp, the super PAC’s executive director, called that scenario “aspirational,” but added, “This election is extremely volatile.”
A late-breaking wave could alter the landscape. While senators often can insulate themselves from the national environment by establishing their own brands, House races tend to be proxies for the national parties. About half of this year’s targeted House races are in presidential battleground states, while many others are in states that favor Clinton, such as California, Illinois and New York.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said Clinton’s growing lead in national polls should help. “The most important thing she could do is keep her eye on the prize, understand that she has to get people to vote for her,” he said. “She does well, we do well.”
Republican leaders have advised incumbents to localize their races as much as possible. While GOP officials concede they are poised to lose seats, they say Democrats failed to recruit enough top-tier challengers to fully capitalize on Trump’s unpopularity.
GOP candidates are buoyed by record fundraising hauls by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). But McCarthy last week sounded the alarm, pleading with safe incumbents to spread their campaign cash to help colleagues endangered by Trump.
Even if Democrats fall short, picking up seats would shrink the size of the GOP majority, potentially creating problems for Ryan because it could strengthen the power of conservative hard-liners inside the conference while also enhancing the prospects for more progressive legislation.
“Immigration reform was in the deep freeze, somewhere with Boehner’s frozen peas and ice cubes,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), referring to the last Republican House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio. “So even if we don’t take back the House, getting closer in the House makes all the difference.”
Clinton decided early in her campaign to run a robust, coordinated campaign that assists down-ballot Democrats in ways Obama’s did not always, including sharing office space in the states. “I want to bring as many Democrats with me to Washington as I possibly can,” she said in Iowa in July 2015.
But it was not until after a video surfaced Oct. 7 showing Trump bragging in a 2005 “Access Hollywood” interview about sexually assaulting women that Clinton’s advisers decided to make late investments.
Private polls reviewed by Clinton strategists showed Democratic Senate and gubernatorial candidates rising in Indiana and Missouri. The Clinton team concluded that in Missouri, for instance, a well-funded ground game to turn out African Americans could be the deciding factor.
“We saw new opportunities popping up,” Mook said. “We felt a moral obligation to help.”
Missouri has emerged as a top priority for a Democratic Party hungry for new stars. Jason Kander — a 35-year-old military veteran who gained attention for a television ad showing him touting support for tougher gun laws while assembling an AR-15 blindfolded — is giving a surprisingly strong challenge to Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Recent polls show the race effectively tied.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is poised to succeed retiring Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) as leader of Senate Democrats, said Kander is “smart, he’s hard-working, and he has the right image for Missouri.”
Both parties agree Democrats are poised to pick up Senate seats in Illinois and Wisconsin. Toomey and Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) are in danger. Ayotte in particular has struggled to navigate Trump, saying in a recent debate that the nominee was “absolutely” a role model for children. She later revised her position to say neither Trump nor Clinton set good examples.
In some states, Republican senators are trying to portray themselves as counterweights to a Democratic president. In New Hampshire, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is airing an ad touting Ayotte as someone who “works across the aisle to get things done,” while speculating of her Democratic opponent, Maggie Hassan, “just imagine what she’d do unchecked in Washington with a new president.”
It is unclear whether there will be a national push to portray Republicans as a “check” on a President Clinton, as the GOP did in 1996 to protect the House and Senate majorities when presidential nominee Robert J. Dole was losing badly.
“If we see it working in other places, then we’ll absolutely go there,” said Rob Engstrom, the Chamber’s political director. “It’s not effective everywhere.”
The only Democratic Senate seat Republicans hope to snatch away is Reid’s. Republican Joseph J. Heck had been weathering the season relatively well, but after the “Access Hollywood” video came out he withdrew his endorsement of Trump, sparking a backlash from Nevada conservatives.
Democrat Catherine Cortez Mastro is trying to saddle him with Trump’s baggage nevertheless. An ad airing frequently on Las Vegas airwaves juxtaposes video of Trump attacking undocumented immigrants and a disabled journalist with Heck’s previously supportive comments of the nominee.
Cortez Mastro hopes to benefit from the robust turnout operation Clinton is preparing in Nevada, especially among Latino voters — as does Ruben Kihuen, a Mexican-born immigrant who is challenging Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-Nev.) in a majority-minority Las Vegas-
Republicans have a structural advantage because of the way congressional districts have been drawn to favor them, but Trump’s declining popularity in suburban areas presents fresh opportunities for Democrats.
Mook pointed out Reps. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), who represent suburban bellwether districts, as ripe for defeat. Comstock has kept her distance from Trump from the start, while Coffman’s posture has been more confusing. In a debate last week, when asked whether Trump was a “sexual predator” in light of allegations of unwanted kissing and touching, Coffman said, “Oh, I don’t know.”
“He’s in real hot water,” Mook said. “We’re going to be doing a lot of voter turnout, and I think we can make a huge difference.”
Abby Phillip in Pittsburgh and Paul Kane in Washington contributed to this report.