The GOP's last, best hope: Hold the Senate

Can the GOP turn Senate races into a referendum on Hillary?

The stakes are high.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

With less than two weeks to go until Election Day, Republican Donald Trump seems to be skidding toward a clear loss. Trump last led in the Real Clear Politics poll average at the Republican convention, in both the two- and four-way polling models. Today, Democrat Hillary Clinton leads by an average of more than five points in both. Trump has not led in a non-tracking-poll survey from any pollster since Bloomberg put him up two points in late September.

Of course, it's not over till it's over, especially in a cycle this volatile, but time has certainly begun to run out for a major polling reversal. Republicans likely need to start planning for a third consecutive term locked out of the White House, the first time since Harry Truman that this has happened.

Is it any wonder that GOP officials seem to be turning away from Trump to pour money into a half dozen must-win Senate races?

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Republicans have a 54-46 Senate majority, but a shift of four seats could split the chamber — and a Clinton win would put Tim Kaine in place as the tiebreaker. Unfortunately for Republicans, they are a 2016 victim of their 2010 success: They have to defend 24 seats this year, while Democrats defend only 10. That gives Democrats a far better opportunity to pick up a net of four or more seats.

The Cook Political Report agrees. "We are increasing the range of expected Democratic pick ups to five to seven seats," Jennifer Duffy wrote on Tuesday morning. Duffy also pointed out that early voting makes it difficult for Republicans to turn the closest Senate races around — unless they're willing to concede defeat at the top of the ticket. "The GOP's only hope is to start running a checks-and-balances message," she concluded "or more blatantly, a don't-give-Clinton-a-blank-check message to motivate their base, particularly what one strategist called 'casual Republicans,' to the polls."

To some extent, key Republicans have been making that argument with varying degrees of subtlety. GOP Sen. Pat Toomey has played coy in Pennsylvania about whether he will cast a vote for his party's nominee. "I don't think my constituents care that much how one person is going to vote," the Republican incumbent responded when a debate moderator pressed him for his decision. Others have vacillated a little more publicly on the question, such as New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte, who described Trump as a role model right before the release of his controversial remarks on an Access Hollywood tape. Sen. Marco Rubio has led consistently in Florida in part by having it both ways — supporting Trump as the only option to Clinton but criticizing his statements as they have emerged.

The question Duffy poses now, though, is one that Republicans will have to face head on. It's not a question of rescinding endorsements, but rather one of preparing for the likeliest outcome. No doubt a "contain Clinton" pitch will anger Trump's supporters with its tacit concession that she will likely win on Nov. 8. But it's a perfectly rational option that does nothing to denigrate the nominee. It has a precedent as well: Republicans used the same strategy in 1996 when Bob Dole clearly got outmatched by Bill Clinton.

On top of that, voters clearly have already distinguished between the presidential race and those down the ballot. This strategy would have voters take the next logical step of seeing their Senate vote as another means of registering their displeasure with Hillary Clinton. They even have new ammunition for that argument; Clinton has pledged to keep the ObamaCare system, while the White House just admitted that its consumers will get hammered with a massive premium rate increase next year. Voters going to the polls after watching mandatory insurance eat even further into their income will look for an effective way to punish those who created the problem, and with the presidency all but lost, Senate races have the most potential impact.

After the election, the Republican Party has another reckoning due about how the 2016 cycle turned out. For now, though, they have a short window to rescue what they can from this election. A nod to reality may be too late to help, but it certainly can't hurt.

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Edward Morrissey

Edward Morrissey has been writing about politics since 2003 in his blog, Captain's Quarters, and now writes for His columns have appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Post, The New York Sun, the Washington Times, and other newspapers. Morrissey has a daily Internet talk show on politics and culture at Hot Air. Since 2004, Morrissey has had a weekend talk radio show in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and often fills in as a guest on Salem Radio Network's nationally-syndicated shows. He lives in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota with his wife, son and daughter-in-law, and his two granddaughters. Morrissey's new book, GOING RED, will be published by Crown Forum on April 5, 2016.