Donald Brand is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
Barring a catastrophe that fundamentally alters the dynamics of this year’s presidential race, the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of Hillary Clinton becoming the next president of the United States. Despite his promises to expand the GOP base and win over traditionally blue states, Donald Trump has been stuck playing defense. Clearly, the GOP needs a new strategy.
The New York Times’ Upshot, which relies on a sophisticated mathematical model to simulate the election based on current polls, gives Clinton an 87% chance of winning. FiveThirtyEight, which also uses a highly regarded simulation model, also gives Clinton an 87% chance of victory. The latest polling, as summarized by RealClearPolitics, has her ahead of Trump in the following swing states, which will determine the outcome of the election: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Georgia, Colorado, and Nevada (although within some of the states, Clinton’s lead is within the margin of error of the poll). And if Trump had any hopes that he might do well in Maine, Sen. Susan Collins’s (R-ME) recent announcement that she’s supporting Hillary Clinton should dash those hopes.
The decision by Evan McMullin, a former CIA official who worked on policy with the House Republican Conference, to mount an independent run for president would be a minor distraction were it not for the fact that McMullin is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He could actually outpoll Trump in Utah, where the GOP nominee has been severely criticized by hometown hero Mitt Romney and was crushed in the primaries by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) (Trump got just 14% of the vote). And he’s currently battling to hold onto states like Utah and Georgia that are typically counted as part of the safe Republican base.
This is 1996 all over again, and the GOP needs to adopt the same strategy that saved down-stream Republicans in that election. By mid-summer of that year, it became clear that Bob Dole, the Republican nominee, had no chance of beating Bill Clinton in his bid for reelection. So Republicans wisely diverted funds from the hopeless presidential campaign to the Senate and House races they needed to win in order to maintain control of those chambers. Congressional Republican candidates began to run ads conceding that Dole would lose in November, but asking voters to elect a Republican Congress to serve as a check on Clinton. The strategy worked then, and it has the potential to be effective in this electoral cycle, given the profound distrust people have for Hillary.
With fewer voters splitting their tickets these days (and the probability of a Trump defeat in November dampening Election Day turnout), Republicans face a daunting task in persuading supporters to vote their conscience in the presidential race, but to still come home to the Republican Party for other races. Republicans need to persuade voters that Republican control of the Senate could block an effort by Clinton to pack the Supreme Court with very liberal justices who would deprive them of Second Amendment rights, overturn Citizens United, dramatically expand a woman’s right to choose, and uphold the trend of congressional abdication: sliding to a government based on executive orders rather than legislation.
Preserving Republican control of the Senate is a manageable challenge if donors embrace this strategy. Twenty-four of the 34 seats up for reelection are held by Republicans. Six of these seats are in states that voted for President Obama in 2012. The Republicans hold a 54-46 majority, but if the Democrats pick up just four seats, they will essentially control the Senate, since a 50-50 tie would be resolved by the presiding officer of the Senate, who, in the event of Clinton victory, would be Vice President Tim Kaine. Senate Republicans facing tough battles for reelection include Mark Kirk (IL), Kelly Ayotte (NH), Ron Johnson (WI), Pat Toomey (PA), and Rob Portman (OH). These candidates face a dilemma: They need the votes of Trump supporters to win reelection, so they cannot simply repudiate Trump without risking this support. At the same time, they need to appeal to voters who will vote for Clinton for president, but who may do so begrudgingly.
Timing is critical. If these candidates openly reject Trump now the way Sen. Collins—who is not up for reelection this cycle—did, they will appear to undermine his candidacy and will face a backlash from irate Trump supporters. But if they hold off until Trump’s electoral prospects have eroded even further (all too likely given his undisciplined campaign style), then they can portray their strategy as dictated by inescapable electoral facts. Sure, they are abandoning a sinking ship, but they didn’t sink it. Many voters won’t start paying close attention to the campaigns until after Labor Day, so Republican candidates for Senate have almost a month to build their campaigns before they irrevocably define their relationship to Trump. It may be time to move away from Sen. Kelly Ayotte's (R-NH) awkward support-but-not-endorse stance to Collins's more straightforward description of Trump as a person who exacerbates the country's racial and cultural divisions and who is far from prepared to serve as commander-in- chief.