They have done both by using an old political formula. In key states at the time, President Barack Obama was unable to win, his fellow Democrats fielding Senate candidates better suited to local electorates who could.
It won’t be easy for President Donald Trump and Republicans this fall, and not just because Trump faces a bigger deficit against Democratic rival Joe Biden than Obama never faced Mitt Romney in 2012. So far at least, Republican Senate candidates have shown little. ability to separate their fate from Trump.
“If (the election) takes place today, I don’t see how Republicans can hold out,” admits GOP strategist Liam Donovan. At the top and bottom of the ballot, he explains, “The only question is, ‘Do you like Trump? “”
A generation ago, when the Democratic and Republican parties embraced considerable ideological and geographic diversity, these simple electoral equations did not apply. The share of voters supporting candidates from different parties for the presidency and the Senate has risen from around 20% in the 1970s to around 6% today, notes political scientist Gary Jacobson.
When Obama called for re-election, such a “ticket split” allowed Democrats to win Senate seats in Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia – all Red States Romney wore easily. Democratic candidates with relatively conservative profiles have managed to significantly overtake Obama.
Neither party achieved this in 2016 when Trump and Hillary Clinton led the Republicans and Democrats. The convergence of the vote of the President and the Senate was complete; Republican Senate candidates won only in states led by Trump, Democratic Senate candidates only in states led by Clinton.
This year, as Trump hangs out nationally and on critical battlefields, it does not bode well for the field of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s candidate. Three months before Election Day, some endangered GOP Senate candidates not only manage to get ahead of the president, but actually underperform.
In Michigan, which Trump won just four years ago, the poll average on realclearpolitics.com now shows him behind eight percentage points. GOP Senate challenger John James trails incumbent Democratic candidate Gary Peters even further.
The same goes for struggling Republican incumbents, who in previous campaigns might have relied on their own political identities distinct from the home state.
In Arizona, GOP Senator Martha McSally trails Democratic challenger Mark Kelly by twice the three percent deficit Trump faces. In North Carolina, GOP Senator Thom Tillis faces the same situation facing Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham.
Political analysts cite several factors. The GOP’s gloomy domestic environment fueled strong fundraising by Democratic candidates, helping them pile up further attacks on Republicans already weighed down by Trump’s unpopularity. Among Democrats and some independents, antipathy towards Trump is transferred directly to Republican congressional candidates who they believe would help him in office.
In 2012, opponents “did not despise Barack Obama with as much intensity as people despite Donald Trump,” said Amy Walter, an analyst at the Cook Report. “He forced you to choose a side. There is no gray area.”
This black-and-white dynamic is eroding support within the party for Republicans seeking to protect themselves by establishing any distance from Trump. In North Carolina, after briefly contradicting Trump over funding for the US-Mexico “border wall” last year, Tillis faced hissing from Trump’s allies without winning the support of Trump’s opponents.
Not even the Republican of the Northeast who praises her independence most loudly has escaped the backlash. In a recent public poll, veteran GOP Senator Susan Collins nearly matched Trump’s approval rating at around 40%.
To divert the president’s attention to her Democratic challenger Sara Gideon, Collins proposed no less than 16 debates between them before election day. Other Republicans have attempted similar gambits.
The gigantic shadow that Trump casts in 2020 and the dwindling supply of media resources available to cover state and local politics make it a difficult strategy to implement. What Republican candidates need most is partisan solidarity to reverse some of the erosion Trump has suffered among Republican-leaning constituencies, such as older, non-college whites, who raised in 2016.
“The only hope they have is that as the election approaches, Trump will be able to win back some of these disgruntled Republicans,” Walter said.
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