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Politics

When it comes to Trump, GOP senators battling for their seats are used to contortions

Sen. Kelly Ayotte
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., meets with area business leaders at Saint Anselm College before giving a speech at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics Monday, July 11, 2016, in Manchester, N.H.
(AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte may be voting for Donald Trump, but she really doesn’t like talking about it. 

Unfortunately for the New Hampshire senator — and several of her GOP colleagues in battleground states — it’s a question that keeps coming up.

“Listen, I’ve said what my position is,” she said with slight exasperation during an interview at a campaign stop in her hometown of Nashua to help volunteers stuff care packages for overseas military troops.

Over the last month, Ayotte, who is facing a tough reelection battle this fall, stood by the combative GOP presidential nominee despite his attacks on the Gold Star parents of a fallen U.S. soldier, his suggestion that “2nd Amendment people” could stop Hillary Clinton from choosing Supreme Court justices and even his initial refusal to endorse Ayotte herself following her critiques of some of his statements.

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“I’m beating her in the polls by a lot,” Trump boasted earlier this month, saying his support in New Hampshire was better than hers.

But that’s not true anymore. Recent polls show Ayotte trailing her Democratic rival by about 3 percentage points, but put Trump behind Clinton by nearly double digits in the Granite State.

Usually a presidential nominee is a boon to the party’s ticket, providing a big-name draw and fundraising powerhouse whose campaign apparatus can swoop into a state and help down-ballot candidates across the finish line.

But this year, Trump’s unconventional campaign has turned coattails into anchors, threatening to drag down Republicans and endanger the GOP’s Senate majority.

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Ayotte’s position on Trump is an artful one: She says she is voting for the candidate, but not endorsing him. And she’s not the only Republican senator engaging in such campaign contortions.

In Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio told the Miami Herald this week that he stands by his past criticism of Trump as a “con man,” a remark made during the ugly GOP presidential primary. But now that Rubio is fighting for reelection in a state won by Trump in the primary, Rubio said he would nevertheless vote for his former rival.

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, another swing state where Trump has fallen behind, managed to avoid attending a recent Trump rally.

In the Democratic stronghold of Illinois, GOP Sen. Mark Steven Kirk became the first Republican senator to withdraw his endorsement of Trump.

Donald Trump is squeezing vulnerable senators around the country.
Nathan Gonzales, nonpartisan analyst for the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report

“Donald Trump is squeezing vulnerable senators around the country,” said Nathan Gonzales, a nonpartisan analyst for the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report.

“I don’t doubt that Kelly Ayotte and these vulnerable senators can outperform Donald Trump. The question is how big of a hole is Donald Trump digging that they’re going to have to dig out of?” he said.

With the Senate now split 54 to 46, Republicans can afford a net loss of four seats and still keep the majority if Trump also wins the White House, since the vice president becomes a tiebreaking vote. But if Clinton wins, a four-seat net loss would hand Democrats the majority.

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So far, it is not going well for Republicans.

Polls show at least half a dozen Republican-held Senate seats in danger, namely in presidential battleground states or decidedly Democratic ones.

Many of these states would have been problem spots for the GOP even without Trump at the top of the ticket.

In addition to Illinois, Wisconsin became a slog for the GOP after Democrats drafted former Sen. Russ Feingold as the challenger to Sen. Ron Johnson, who is also supporting but not endorsing Trump.

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But even races that were supposed to be friendlier for incumbent Republicans are suddenly favoring the Democratic challengers as Trump’s numbers fall.

Toomey has been losing ground in Pennsylvania to Democrat Katie McGinty, polls show, as Clinton takes a wide lead over Trump.

In North Carolina, Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, has fallen behind Democratic challenger Deborah Ross, a former state representative and American Civil Liberties Union executive.

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“These guys know they’re standing on the train tracks,” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “They just don’t know if they can jump in time.”

Some Republican senators are hoping their support is strong enough to survive any potential drag Trump might bring.

That may be the case for the well-liked first-term Republican Sen. Rob Portman in Ohio. Clinton is ahead in polls but she hasn’t brought the Democratic Senate candidate, former Gov. Ted Strickland, along with her.

But generally, rather than playing offense, Republicans are increasingly being forced to spend resources to defend seats that were once safer.

Outside groups, including those aligned with the Koch brothers and Republican operative Karl Rove, are pouring millions of dollars into down-ballot GOP races, believing an effort to save Congress is the smarter investment than Trump’s White House bid. 

In conservative Indiana, the Koch-aligned Americans for Prosperity and Rove’s Senate Leadership Fund are sending in money and volunteers to prop up Republican Rep. Todd Young, who was poised to cruise to victory before Democrats drafted former Sen. Evan Bayh and his robust campaign war chest to run.

And in Arizona, veteran Sen. John McCain has called the challenge from Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick the race of his career — though he must first clear a late-August primary challenge from a pro-Trump Republican.

Dealing with Trump and his often erratic campaign is proving to be a delicate challenge.

Republican campaign officials have cautioned candidates not to directly attack Trump, lest they alienate the GOP supporters they will need. Yet supporting him will undoubtedly drive away moderate voters, particularly in the battleground states where it takes a broader coalition to win statewide.

In New Hampshire, GOP voters chose Trump in the presidential primary. But his numbers have sunk since then, making his eventual endorsement of Ayotte less helpful in a state where Democrats and independents make up the majority.

Ayotte’s main rival, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, is exploiting Ayotte’s struggle every chance she gets.

“She is willing to still support Donald Trump even though members of her own party who are national security experts and foreign policy experts have said he poses a danger to our country’s vital interests,” Hassan said in an interview after an event at a community health center last week. “That signals this party-first mentality that frustrates so many people.”

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At the same time, Ayotte’s primary challenger, Jim Rubens, a former state senator who is backing Trump, said the senator’s middle-road approach is pleasing no one.

“It’s emblematic of Ayotte. She’s trying to be on both sides of every issue,” he said. “It’s backfiring horribly.”

Ayotte shrugged off such concerns. “I’m running my own race here,” she said.

But some voters are unconvinced. During an evening walk with his wife on the Statehouse lawn in Concord, Dave Wheeler said he backed Ayotte when she first ran in 2010, but is unsure how he will vote in November.

“We’re watching,” said Wheeler, a retired police chief from a nearby municipality. He said he’d like Ayotte to show more independence.

 “I’d like to see her distance herself from Donald Trump,” he said. “She should stand up for what she believes in and support Donald Trump or not. If Kelly would stand on her principle … she’d get reelected.” 

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

Twitter: @LisaMascaro

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