Can the G.O.P. Senate Majority Survive Donald Trump?
The party’s most vulnerable down-ticket candidates try to escape the shadow of a presidential campaign that is imperiling their prospects in November.
By ROBERT DRAPER
On a Sunday morning in early June, Senator Mark Kirk rolled into an uptown Chicago bar in his wheelchair to take part in the city’s 47th annual L.G.B.T. Pride Parade, wearing a red polo shirt, charcoal khakis and the abashed half-smile of a 56-year-old man who has already assessed his long odds of blending in. He hoisted himself up and made his way into the crowd, leaning on the cane he has used since suffering a severe stroke four years ago.
A few young people wearing robin’s-egg blue Equality Illinois T-shirts approached him. They shook his hand and thanked him for being one of the few Republican senators to sponsor the Equality Act, which would extend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination against L.G.B.T. people. The encounters tended to be brief, because even in the most favorable circumstances Kirk has always been a somewhat awkward conversationalist. Crowded up against a middle-aged woman wearing a rainbow tutu, he offered: “My friend has a 3-year-old granddaughter who wears nothing but tutus. It’d be good to get her one of those. Good for, er, political purposes.”
On his way out the door, Kirk found his path impeded by another wheelchair-using politician: Representative Tammy Duckworth, his Democratic opponent in November’s election, who lost both of her legs to a grenade as an Army helicopter pilot during the Iraq war. The two wincingly shook hands — “Whenever you run into your opponent,” he told me later, “there’s always that fake smile” — but said nothing.
Out on North Broadway, where the festivities were about to begin, Kirk climbed into the gray Mustang convertible that would ferry him through the parade. Before long, Duckworth materialized nearby. The 48-year-old congresswoman wore a rainbow-colored tie-dyed T-shirt, several beaded necklaces and a halo of flowers in her hair. “Woo hoo!” she hollered as onlookers called out her name. Meanwhile Kirk — a man who is palpably of, by and for the northern suburbs of Chicago — sat in the passenger seat of the Mustang and cast a pensive gaze at the gray clouds gathering overhead.
Kirk is refreshingly unvarnished as senators go and did not bother pretending to be in the parading spirit. Less than four months before Election Day, the first-term senator’s own polls have him 3 points behind Duckworth. More than a year ago, Beltway odds makers were already rating Kirk as one of the likeliest to lose among the senators up for re-election in 2016.
Illinois is a resolutely blue state that becomes even more so in a presidential cycle, when black and Hispanic turnout in the Chicago area is especially high; the last Republican from the state to hold a United States Senate seat for more than one term was Charles Percy, who left office in 1985. Although Kirk was a congressman for a full decade before winning in 2010 the Senate seat once held by Barack Obama, to this day he lacks a national or even statewide profile. And all of this was before a certain real estate tycoon decided to run for president.
In a more ordinary presidential election year, a vulnerable senator like Kirk would be inclined to look to the top of the ticket for campaign support. But what happens when that position is occupied by Donald Trump — a candidate who has proposed banning Muslim immigration, has made a seemingly endless series of statements offensive to Hispanics, Jews, blacks and women and, according to Gallup polls, currently enjoys a favorable rating (31 percent) not seen since the nadir of Jimmy Carter’s presidency? The Trump-led ticket has prompted gleeful Democrats to coalesce around a general-election message that will tie every Republican officeseeker to the nominee. Meanwhile, Republican leaders like Speaker Paul Ryan and the 2012 presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, have gone to the extreme of repeatedly condemning the behavior of their party’s standard-bearer, implicitly urging Republican candidates to do whatever is necessary to avoid an Election Day apocalypse.
The friction between the nominee and his party became jarringly apparent during a closed-door meeting at the Capitol Hill Club on July 7 between Trump and 41 Republican senators. A few of them accused Trump of jeopardizing the party’s prospects in November; Trump fired back with insults, labeling Kirk — who was not present but has publicly criticized Trump — a “loser.”
Last September, as the idea that the Trump candidacy was something more than an ephemeral novelty began to sink in, Ward Baker, the executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, sent a memo to his senior staff. “Let’s face facts,” Baker wrote. “Trump says what’s on his mind, and that’s a problem. Our candidates will have to spend full time defending him or condemning him if that continues. And that’s a place we never, ever want to be.” Baker’s seven-page memo, which was leaked to The Washington Post, instructed candidates to “run your own race” and to “show your independence” from the man he described as a “misguided missile” — but at the same time, he cautioned, be mindful of the fact that “Trump has connected with voters on issues like trade with China and America’s broken borders.”
Even eight months before Trump effectively claimed the nomination, Baker grasped the uniquely fraught terrain the party’s unexpected standard-bearer had laid out before the Republicans who would be sharing a ticket with him in November. The connection between presidential nominees and so-called down-ballot candidates is historically clear, and has become more so as the country has become more polarized. That’s especially the case when it comes to the Senate. With (for the most part) increasing frequency since 1913 — the year the 17th Amendment was passed, designating that senators would be elected by popular vote rather than by state legislatures — voters have tended to elect Senate candidates who belong to the same party as the presidential candidate they favor.
Both parties still hold close the memories of the exceptional examples of this phenomenon, the bonanza years and the catastrophes. In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s victory over Carter was the crest of a tidal wave that also gave Republicans 12 Senate seats and control over the upper chamber for the first time in almost three decades. In 1964, Barry Goldwater’s support for “extremism in the defense of liberty” cost Republicans two-thirds of both the Senate and the House.
But Trump presents a much more complex weather system for his ticket-mates to navigate than either of these cases. His views are not wedded to a coherent ideological movement within his party (as Goldwater’s were), nor is his unpopularity a simple judgment on his record (as Carter’s was). Instead, Trump is a sui generis figure who must be accepted or rejected on his own terms, not artfully hedged around in the way politicians are accustomed to doing. And while Trump was undoubtedly the most popular Republican primary contestant in a field of 17, it’s still not clear how many of his opponents’ supporters will vote for their party’s pick on Election Day. For an at-risk Republican senator this fall, to back away from Trump is, by extension, to snub his millions of die-hard loyalists, the one group of party voters that is sure to show up on Nov. 8. But to go all-in for Trump is to take leave of your Republican bona fides and embrace life as a Trump Mini-Me — a gamble that not a single Republican senator up for re-election this fall appears to have the stomach for.
None of this seems to overly concern Trump. When I asked him recently whether the party’s maintaining its majority in the Senate meant anything to him, he replied: “Well, I’d like them to do that. But I don’t mind being a free agent, either.” Trump has shown similarly little interest in helping his party’s committees build the sort of war chests typically required in a campaign year. After winning the presidential nomination on a shoestring budget and with fewer paid staff members than the average candidate for governor, he has been visibly reluctant to help build much in the way of national campaign infrastructure, sending a clear message to his fellow Republicans: This fall, you’re on your own. As Ryan Williams, a strategist with the 2012 Romney presidential campaign, told me: “Traditionally, the nominee has a robust campaign that absorbs the R.N.C. effort and works in tandem with the down-ballot campaigns. We did that with Romney in 2012. This time around, there’s a complete void at the presidential level. Trump’s trying to play a game of baseball and hasn’t put out an infield.”
In addition to Kirk, there are five Republican incumbents running in states that Obama won in 2012 whose fortunes are now lashed to those of the Trump campaign: Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, Marco Rubio in Florida, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Rob Portman in Ohio. In May, Ayotte offered her “support” for Trump, but a spokeswoman quickly clarified to reporters that Ayotte “hasn’t and isn’t planning to endorse anyone this cycle.” Johnson supplied messaging advice to the Trump campaign during the Wisconsin primary in April and declared the day after Trump vanquished Ted Cruz on May 3 that “I am going to certainly endorse the Republican nominee.” Two weeks later, however, Johnson ratcheted down his endorsement to Ayotte-esque “support,” warily adding that he would “be concentrating on the areas of agreement with Mr. Trump.”
Rubio, meanwhile, has remained in a state of Trump-induced torment ever since his drubbing in the presidential primaries. Before announcing that he would run again for the Senate, Rubio said that he would be “honored” to help his party’s nominee, but later hedged, saying he did not expect to speak at the Republican convention on Trump’s behalf — and finally declaring he would not attend the convention at all. “I think that the Senate needs to fulfill its role as a check and balance on the president, no matter who it is,” he said last month. This was clearly intended to suggest that, if re-elected, he would not blindly do the bidding of a President Trump — a notion that has prompted belittlement from Rubio’s Democratic opponents. “What’s so funny about that premise is that Rubio’s the only Senate candidate we’re running against who has proven he’s ineffective at standing up to Donald Trump,” Sadie Weiner, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s communications director, told me.