Donald J. Trump’s support has plunged across the swing-state map over the last 10 days, wiping out his political recovery from September and threatening to undo weeks of Republican gains in the battle for control of Congress.
For his party, Mr. Trump’s reversal in fortune comes at the worst possible moment: Having muted their criticism of Mr. Trump in hopes that he could at least run competitively through Election Day, Republicans must decide in the next few days, rather than weeks, whether to seek distance from his wobbly campaign.
Should Mr. Trump falter badly in his second debate with Hillary Clinton on Sunday in St. Louis, Republican congressional candidates may take it as a cue to flee openly from their nominee, said two senior Republicans involved at high levels of the campaign who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss private party strategy.
Mr. Trump has already slipped perceptibly in public polls, trailing widely this week in Pennsylvania and by smaller margins in Florida and North Carolina — three states he cannot afford to lose. But private polling by both parties shows an even more precipitous drop, especially among independent voters, moderate Republicans and women, according to a dozen strategists from both parties who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the data was confidential.Continue reading the main story
Liesl Hickey, a Republican strategist involved in several House races in swing states, said she was dismayed by a sudden exodus of independent voters in more diverse parts of the country.
“They are really starting to pull away from Trump,” said Ms. Hickey, describing his soaring unpopularity with independents as entering “uncharted territory.”
Mr. Trump’s erratic behavior last week after his poor performance in the first debate with Mrs. Clinton — attacking a former beauty pageant winner over her weight, and making an issue of the Clintons’ marriage — has alarmed a number of Republican senators, including Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader. Mr. McConnell expressed concern that Mr. Trump might not have bottomed out yet and could lose even more support among women, according to a Republican official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to recount a private conversation.
If the roller-coaster dip in Mr. Trump’s standing has heightened anxieties among Republican officials and political operatives, a steady if unspectacular performance by his running mate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, in the vice-presidential debate on Tuesday failed to quiet their nerves.
“Two weeks ago I would have said Republicans would hold control of the Senate, but there’s just so many seats up and nobody is getting separation,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster, referring to the number of the party’s candidates still locked in tight races. “It worries me that we’re this close to Election Day and you’re not seeing that separation, because it makes you wonder what kind of impact the top of the ticket has.”
Other Republicans are holding out hope that Mr. Trump can at least execute what some cheekily call a “lose-close” strategy: holding Mrs. Clinton to a narrow victory, and sparing other Republican candidates in the process.
Jay Bergman, a petroleum executive and Republican donor from Illinois, said his fellow contributors were no longer optimistic that Mr. Trump will win, and they have lowered their sights. “They want the guy to make a credible showing,” he said. “They’re afraid that if Trump really screws up and looks bad, then down-ticket, there are going to be a lot more votes for Democrats.”
If Mrs. Clinton wins, putting Tim Kaine, as vice president, there to break a tie, Democrats would need four seats to take control of the Senate. Officials in both parties see Republican incumbents in Wisconsin and Illinois as likely to lose, so Democrats would need to just two more pickups to capture the majority if they retain the rest of their seats.
Republicans worry that Mr. Trump’s difficulties in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, where Republican incumbents are caught between their own base and moderate voters appalled by the party’s nominee, could hand Democrats those decisive seats. Senator Kelly Ayotte, the Republican up for re-election in New Hampshire, demonstrated the vise she is in this week when she said at a debate that Mr. Trump would represent a good role model for children, only to recant a few hours later.
Sensing new opportunity, Democrats intend to redouble their efforts to tie Republican candidates to Mr. Trump in states and districts with large numbers of college-educated voters and minorities.
“I think it’s quite effective in New Hampshire, in suburban Philadelphia and in Nevada,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat.
Compounding their difficulties, Republicans are also fending off a challenge to Senator Richard M. Burr in North Carolina, a state Mrs. Clinton is determined to win, and have also become just as worried about Senator Roy Blunt’s prospects in Missouri. Strategists in both parties who have seen internal polling say Mr. Blunt, whose seat initially seemed safe, is now trailing his Democratic challenger, Jason Kander, a deft campaigner who has been helped by Mrs. Clinton’s narrowing deficit in the state.
The good news for Senate Republicans, besides Mrs. Clinton’s own unpopularity and Mr. Trump’s history of bouncing back from self-inflicted wounds, is that Democrats may need to pick up more than just two seats to seize the majority. In Nevada, which has the only Democratic-held Senate seat being aggressively fought over this year, strategists in both parties say Republicans have an advantage in the race to succeed Harry Reid, the minority leader.
Some Republicans doubt the party will take the step of completely abandoning Mr. Trump unless a landslide gap opens in the presidential race. In that event, Democrats intend to appeal to Mrs. Clinton to spend more of her time and money in areas where the party’s congressional candidates are struggling.
In the House, where Republicans enjoy a 59-seat majority, the party’s strategists still insist that Mr. Trump’s effect has been limited; while his poll numbers have fallen since the first debate, he is not yet seen as so much of a drag on the ballot that he could send the party’s other candidates to defeat.
House Democrats, however, finished polling 30 battleground districts last week — before the fallout from the first presidential debate — and concluded that Mr. Trump remained toxic for Republican congressional candidates. Geoff Garin, one of the Democratic pollsters who conducted the survey, said undecided or wavering voters tended to see Republicans as “putting party loyalty ahead of the country by supporting Trump.”
“Candidates’ support for him and unwillingness to stand up to him becomes a black mark,” Mr. Garin said.
In a growing list of House races, Democrats are showing ads that link Republican lawmakers directly to Mr. Trump. A commercial in California brands Representative Jeff Denham as “Donald Trump’s man in Washington.” An ad in Orlando, Fla., describes Representative John L. Mica as having “the same harmful views on women” as Mr. Trump.
Kelly Ward, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said swing voters tended not to distinguish between lawmakers who vocally endorsed Mr. Trump and those who have stayed silent, neither supporting nor actively opposing his candidacy.
“They’re trying to live in this mushy middle, and I think that’s where voters will hold them accountable,” Ms. Ward said. “The separation Republicans think they will see from Donald Trump is just defied by history.”
A handful of Republicans have explicitly sought distance from Mr. Trump already. Robert J. Dold, a congressman from Illinois who has said he will not vote for Mr. Trump, began running a commercial this week that shows him switching off a television broadcast featuring clips of Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton. And veteran Republicans have urged Representative Scott Garrett of New Jersey, who is seeking re-election in a district Mr. Trump is behind in the polls, to portray himself as a check on Mrs. Clinton, though he has not yet done so.
Few have gone even as far as Mr. Dold, fearing backlash from Mr. Trump’s ardent supporters — and perhaps from Mr. Trump himself, who has repeatedly attacked Republicans who have snubbed him. Indeed, at a fund-raising event outside Chicago last month, Mr. Trump noted in a biting aside that Senator Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, a Republican who opposes Mr. Trump, was on track to be defeated, according to Mr. Bergman, who attended the event.
If Mr. Trump fails to recover, Republicans still question whether Mrs. Clinton is capable of piling up enough of a victory margin to pull congressional Democrats into office along with her.
Mike Shields, president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a “super PAC” that supports Republican House candidates, said Democrats were unlikely to win races on Mr. Trump’s weakness alone.
“We accepted that we had a challenging nominee,” Mr. Shields said. “But in some districts where Trump is either down or has a very low approval rating, they are not able to take advantage of it.”
Mr. Shields added that Democrats have “had to delude themselves that there’s only one presidential candidate running.”