As the sweep of national and battleground state polls in the last week or more are increasingly pointing to what could be a resounding defeat for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, attention is turning to the Senate races where Republicans are defending their 54 seat majority.
*** Trump notwithstanding, the GOP’s Senate majority control would be at risk because seven of the eleven Senate seats up for grabs this year are being defended by Republicans in blue or purple states that went to President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Three Senate seats, in Illinois, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire are likely lost, while four others, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and even Indiana and Missouri, are toss-ups and starting to lean Democrat. ***
*** GOP resources are being diverted from the presidential race to key Senate races, as checks against a Democratic White House. The GOP strategy is a delicate balancing act, to encourage “ticket splitting” among the suburban, white, female, mostly Republican and independent voters most turned off by the Trump campaign, while hoping Trump’s enlarged base of blue collar, white male voters still turn out in near-record numbers. ***
*** The biggest worry for the GOP Senate strategists is that the campaigns to woo ticket splitting may alienate the Trump base voters already voting against the GOP as much as they are against Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. By some internal polling, if only 10% to 15% of the Trump base do not vote, the burden on an unprecedented surge in ticket splitting is more likely to tip the odds to the GOP losing control of the Senate to a 51 or 52-seat Democratic majority. ***
“No Blank Check to the President”
Ticket splitting, in which voters support one party candidate at the national level but vote for candidates from another party at the state, congressional or district levels, has been in steady decline since the 1970s. Prior to then, for instance, conservative southern Democrats tended to vote Democrat at the local and state level but Republican in the presidential elections, especially after the civil rights legislation and cultural wars of the 1960s.
According to a study by Emory University in Atlanta, ticket splitting peaked in Richard Nixon’s landslide win in 1972. The share of voters splitting the ticket has steadily declined since, from perhaps one in four to barely one in ten by 2012.
But there have been rare exceptions to the trend, mostly built on a “no blank check to president” argument by a party facing a potential landslide loss in the presidential race. In 1996, for instance, the GOP presidential candidate Robert Dole, facing insurmountable polling numbers, began by September to shift his appearances towards supporting GOP Senate colleagues rather than his own campaign. The shift seems to have worked, because the GOP picked up a net of two Senate seats to win majority control despite Bill Clinton’s 379-159 electoral vote victory.
And much in the same way this year, the still popular former GOP presidential candidate John McCain, who is likely to easily win his Senate seat, has been lending a helping hand to Republican Senate contenders facing tougher races, going to Indiana and North Carolina recently, where Todd Young and Richard Burr respectively, have both declined to campaign with Trump.
That distancing from Trump has been most successfully pursued by Ohio’s Rob Portman, who is now bar-coasting to re-election over his Democratic rival, former governor Robert Strickland. Other Republicans in close races, most notably Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Burr in North Carolina, and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire are trying to replicate the Portman template, but with varying degrees of success.
In an effort to boost their prospects on November 8, the GOP national party is committing considerable resources and funding support to all three of these most vulnerable Republican candidates in a sophisticated “ticket splitting” pitch aimed at the suburban, middle class, college-educated, white female, mostly Republican and Independent voters — the Philadelphia suburbs come to mind — who have been alienated by Trump’s campaign.
The US Chamber of Commerce, for instance, recently began running ads in New Hampshire media markets endorsing Ayotte as a check on Hillary Clinton in the White House. It is, in other words, the same “no blank check for the president” pitch that saved the Senate for the GOP in 1996.
The not insignificant risk to the finely balanced GOP strategy is that wooing the suburban voters with ticket splitting, if pushed too hard, may well alienate the enlarged base of the Trump voters among the more rural and small town, blue collar white males whom the GOP needs to vote in near record numbers, many of whom are registered Democrats or who have not voted in years.
Just that backfire seems to have crippled Ayotte’s campaign in New Hampshire against Democrat Maggie Hassan or in Nevada, where GOP’s Joe Heck is running for the vacant Senate seat left by retiring Minority Leader Harry Reid. In both cases the GOP candidates were either holding their own or winning until they flip-flopped on their support for Trump, alienating so many Trump voters they are now either trailing badly in the polls — Ayotte is now behind Hassan by 8% while Clinton is up by as much as 15% — or have lost all their forward momentum.
Well-funded Senate Democrats
Likewise working against the GOP strategy are what appear to be well-funded Democratic Senate races. In Nevada, for instance, Republican Heck is being opposed by the relatively unknown Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, who is being funded and supported by long time Nevada Democrat Harry Reid’s fabled get-out-the-vote operations and his Senate Majority Fund.
Even in Florida, where former presidential candidate Marco Rubio is running to retain his Senate seat, Rubio is running into a substantial Democratic effort to boost the prospects of its candidate, the barely known Patrick Murphy, with plenty of money to finance campaign ads and with campaign appearances by Democratic heavyweights like President Obama or Vice President Joe Biden.
Rubio, who has struggled to balance his personal dislike and distancing from Trump while still endorsing him out of a need for Trump votes, is nevertheless safely ahead. But Hillary Clinton has recently pulled even or modestly ahead by 3 points or more in Florida, potentially making ticket splitting the marginal difference ensuring a Rubio win.
Perhaps the most closely fought, high stakes Senate race is in Pennsylvania, where Republican Pat Toomey is battling to retain his seat against a well-run, well-funded campaign by his Democratic challenger Katie McGinty. For now, Toomey seems to be holding his own, but it rests entirely on successfully wooing Philadelphia suburban women voters who will be willing to split the ticket in voting for Hillary Clinton or a third party candidate out of their intense dislike of Trump, but to vote for Toomey.
One key to Toomey’s success in retaining a ticket-splitting suburban vote has been his finely balanced position on gun control. The “middle T” of the Keystone state is solidly Trump country and strongly pro-gun. But Toomey, helped by funding by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, has been navigating a narrow path between a pro-second amendment position while calling for background and mental health checks for gun buyers.
It is a position on guns that is similar to Hillary Clinton’s, but for now it seems to be working, for Toomey is holding a slight lead going into the final weeks of the campaign.