GOP Could Lose Congress as Trump Threatens Downticket Races

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By Emily Zanotti | 4:53 pm, May 17, 2016

A new Rasmussen poll out Tuesday shows Donald Trump closing the gap with Hillary Clinton in the national popular vote.

But a look at individual states seems to tell a different story about the sentiment surrounding the Republicans’ presumptive presidential nominee. As down-ticket races heat up, unless Trump can make Americans like him more than they currently do, he’s about to doom Republicans’ chances of retaining House and Senate majorities.

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Democrats already hold the advantage going into the 2016 Congressional elections, at least as far as the Senate is concerned. Of the 34 Senate seats up for grabs, 24 are being defended by Republicans in states that flipped blue in the 2012 Presidential election—and Democrats need only nine of those seats to retake the Senate.

Republicans are especially vulnerable in swing states —Mark Kirk in Illinois, Rob Portman in Ohio, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania—but are also fighting to retain an open Senate seat in Florida, vacated by Marco Rubio, and in unexpected places, like Arizona and Iowa.

In Illinois, a Democratic-leaning state that only occasionally elects moderate Republicans, sources inside the Kirk campaign begrudgingly note that Kirk is behind his challenger, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, by anywhere from three to five points. Ron Johnson is handling a similar challenge from a Democrat in Wisconsin—he’ll face retired Senator Russ Feingold, and the most recent polls have Feingold more than 10 points ahead.

Ayotte and Toomey are hanging on to tenuous leads within the margin of error. In Florida, Republicans may luck out; Democrats are considering running Alan Grayson, who might be the craziest person ever to hold a Congressional seat (but the race is still considered a toss up).

Trump may be catching up to Clinton nationally, but his favorability rating hovers around 30%, and he’s roundly despised by women, Hispanics, African Americans and young voters, all of whom will be key audiences in 2016. In states like Nevada, where the Hispanic voter population is high and could turn out heavily to vote against Trump, that could mean the difference between a Republican Senate pickup of Harry Reid’s empty Senate seat, and a Democratic Senate legacy (the presumptive Nevada Senate candidate is Hispanic). Rep. Joe Heck, who will run in Nevada for the Republicans, has been desperately trying to distance himself from Trump, especially with regards to Trump’s position on immigration.

For Senators like John McCain (Arizona) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa), its Trump’s narrow margins that are the most dangerous. The two Senators, who have been safe for decades, are now in close races against powerful Democrats, with Democratic donors pouring millions into advertising.

The Senate situation is so concerning that Republican mega-donors the Koch brothers, who are staying out of the Presidential race, have just committed $30 million to saving Republican Senate seats.

For Democrats the House is trickier; their odds of success are more like that of a Kardashian marriage to a professional athlete—variable depending on home audience interest. They would need to flip 30 seats to retake the majority. But while some Republican seats, like Rep. Paul Ryan’s, are undoubtedly safe, many House Republicans are openly concerned that endorsing Donald Trump could mean explaining Trump’s policies (and answering whether they agree with him).

Democrats are reportedly concentrating on “moderate, suburban” districts where voters who might regularly elect Republicans are most turned off by Donald Trump’s more extreme rhetoric.  According to David Wasserman, author of the Cook Political Report, Republicans can expect to lose at least 12 seats in the most plausible polling scenario. That would cut their advantage over Democrats in half. He’s less brutal than most.

There is one way that Republicans could give Democrats a tougher fight, even with Trump at the top of the ticket: run toward the middle. According to the polling experts at FiveThirtyEight, the safest Republican races are ones where the GOP candidate belongs to “the Establishment” – that is, they are experienced, mainstream and often moderate. In those down-ticket races, the GOP isn’t cracking up because, as it turns out, Rep. Paul Ryan has the right idea (at least for now): run separate from Trump, not together with him.