Yesterday, Mitch McConnell declared on the Kelly File that split ticket balloting, a declining feature of American elections, would preserve the GOP’s slim majority in the Senate. Trump or no Trump, voters will decide Republican Senators are worth keeping in the era of divided government.
McConnell’s assumption is contingent on a few factors. First, that if Trump gets crushed GOP incumbents can outrun him and secondly GOP incumbents can establish their own brands in a cycle where the news is all about Trump all the time. Indeed, the fact the media still fawns over Trump continues to annoy and flummox the Clinton campaign.
Even in the recent era of hyper-polarized politics there is evidence that split ticket balloting occurs (at least for Senate contests). In 2012, Democratic Senators Jon Tester (MT), Joe Manchin (WV), Claire McCaskill (MO), and GOP Senator Dean Heller all won states the opposite party’s Presidential nominee carried (and not by small margins). Democratic Senate candidates in Indiana and North Dakota also outran Obama to carry their states.
Six races out of 34 contests is not a small number and it indicates with the right candidate and strategies it can be done. But, in many of these cases there were significant caveats. In Nevada, Heller ran against an opponent from urban Las Vegas. McCaskill is famous for running against an anti-abortion zealot who said the dumbest thing in recent electoral history. Ditto in Indiana. Tester and Manchin probably ran the best campaigns of the cycle for their state electorates.
But move forward to 2014 and Democrats lost 9 Senate seats (7 in red states) which means voters returned to their one-party voting preferences. Colorado and Iowa were the exceptions as these blue states elected freshman Republican Senators. It is entirely possible to reason that Democratic Senators in red states in 2012 were actually helped more than hindered by Obama. Red state Democrats could run against Obama and use him as a contrast to their moderate, centrist tendencies (he’s a liberal, I’m a conservative Democrat).
This brings me to the second assumption McConnell makes. As is apparent above the evidence is mixed about whether Senators and Senate candidates can really build their own brands.
It seems counter to conventional wisdom but freshman Senators in 2012 actually did a better job building on maintaining their brands than did many long-time Democratic Senators from 2014 (see Louisiana and Arkansas as examples).
Again, this might have to do with the fact ’14 Democrats were glued to Obama simply by their partisan affiliation. They could not run away from the President or his policies clearly enough.
But, this election cycle is unique in that the GOP and Democratic nominees are known by almost 100 percent of the public and widely disliked. A savvy campaign might run ads unique to their candidate and emphasize local issues. To their credit, many Senate Republicans have.
In Ohio, for example, Senator Rob Portman has run ads touting his work on energy. As a result, the Senator was boosted by a recent endorsement from Ohio’s largest coal miners union. The move indicates that Strickland’s hope to appeal to voters in his home region of Southeast Ohio is pretty doomed and that even an unassuming candidate like Portman can benefit if he focuses on building his own brand.
House members are even less immune to national headwinds. According to the “Vital Statistics of Congress,” only 26 Congressional Districts deviated from their Presidential choice. In 2014, the numbers barely bumped up to 31. House members, if anything, could survive based off their long tenure and name ID. But as polarization has increased their ability to outrun the national headwinds has decreased.
McConnell did not state it but there might be one more reason why Senate Republicans could outrun Trump. Specifically, even in the era of hyper-polarized politics it seems the party’s are actually losing ideological cohesion. Trump is certainly conservative on some issues (immigration and taxes) but his stances on foreign policy, social issues and trade not so much. Clinton is certainly a moderate on many issues but her recent run to the far left makes her appeal weaker to many Democratic moderates.
This gives Republican Senators a chance to contrast themselves against Trump’s abrasive brand much as Obama’s liberalism in 2012 gave red state Democrats a chance to show their moderate tendencies. In many swing states the GOP is defending, running a few points ahead of the nominee might just be enough to eek out a victory.