GOP Consultants across the nation are getting nervous phone calls from their longtime clients as an historic number of incumbents are now sweating the next few months before most filing deadlines hit.
If there’s one thing incumbents hate, it’s uncertainty and Donald Trump’s continued electoral success has meant campaign plans around the country for those running in House and Senate contests this year are getting shredded. Running with Trump at the top of the ticket won’t just mean a shift in messaging for many Republican candidates down the ballot, it could mean a fundamentally different approach, altering everything from grassroots strategy to media.
Jason Cabel Roe, a Republican consultant who works with congressional and state-level candidates, uses four-letter words to describe the predicament the GOP is in with Trump’s candidacy the focal point.
“He is almost certain doom for Republicans in November and he likely costs us control of the Senate, possibly House seats, governors and state legislatures,” Roe told C&E. “While it's true Trump has energized an element of the electorate previously unengaged, we have to account for the people he is chasing away. When you look at his poor approval ratings among Millennials and Hispanics, it's hard to ignore the negative impact he will have on us in the future.”
Whether Trump as the nominee will grow the GOP electorate, or cause the party’s traditional coalition to stay home is going to be a race by race, even district by district calculation for other GOP candidates ahead of November. The greatest fear for many Republican strategists is that he’ll inspire a Democratic wave with the potential to erase the largest GOP House majority in almost 90 years.
Prognosticators are starting shift House ratings from Likely R to Lean R and from Likely D to Solid D. Handicappers aren’t yet predicting the 30-seat swing necessary for Democrats to retake the House, and are still iffy about them retaking the 4 or five seats necessary to reclaim the Senate. But if Trump faces Hillary Clinton in the general election, it could be a blowout based on current polling, and a presidential landslide is more likely than ever to lead to a congressional rout.
That’s according to Cook Report’s David Wasserman. “Today, rates of split-ticket voting are at all-time lows and House candidates are defined by their party and the top of the ticket more than ever,” he wrote last week.
There’s no question the Republican nominating contest is eclipsing any congressional or state-level Republican candidates’ ability to get their message out. That has some consultants worried their clients are going to be hamstrung when it comes to fundraising and their ability to define themselves — an acute vulnerability in areas where Republican voters aren’t the majority.
Though not all consultants believe Trump is a certain drag on the GOP. In Nebraska, for instance, consultants speculate his coattails could help lift Republicans over their Democratic rivals on May 10th when every race in the state is on the primary ballot.
“With the GOP presidential race still in some flux, it could mean that Republicans turn out big and Democrats turn out unusually light,” said Philip Young, a Republican consultant based in Lincoln. “That could have a big effect on a non-partisan race for state Legislature.”
But beyond primary season, the strategy for down-ballot Republicans becomes more difficult as candidates will need to localize their tactics rather than simply ride a wave. In fact, the dynamics of each race could shift so candidates need to be gathering data, understanding their turnout universes and, if they’re a challenger, letting “those people know that you too want to set the political establishment on fire,” said Casey Phillips, a Republican media consultant.
“I continue to be stunned by the total disconnect between people inside the Beltway and out in the real world,” he added. “Good candidates should get that and they will benefit from keeping their eyes and ears open, turning off cable news and listening to what the voters are screaming at them at the tops of their lungs.”
Other consultants are urging clients not to worry too much. Rather, they should keep their heads down and fundraise while waiting for the presidential storm to pass, said Scott Cottington, a Minnesota-based GOP consultant.
He agrees Trump is making it harder for congressional candidates to get attention, but Cottington argued, “it’s tough for any person running for Congress anyway.
“If you’re running in a large media market like Dallas or Seattle, you’re not going to get much ink anyway. I’m relying on money and my ability to deliver my message – not the media.”
Cottington advised incumbents to hit the parade circuit and not address questions about the latest Trump controversy, which are coming almost daily as violence continues to erupt at his large rallies.
“If I’m an incumbent, just start working your base, lay low and wait out this uncertainty,” he said. “I would keep my powder dry until the convention’s over. By Labor Day, you may have to start speaking to it.”