What If Trump Is the Nominee?

Republican Senate candidates are wrestling with that possibility—and with the uncomfortable tensions within their party that it has exposed.

Cliff Owen / AP

Republican Senate candidates should embrace the appeal of Donald Trump’s ballsy rhetoric while simultaneously fending off his “farcical fits.”

That’s the advice offered in a memo to top officials of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. If nothing else, it suggests that leaders within the Republican Party are accepting the reality that Trump really could sit atop the GOP’s 2016 presidential ticket. But the memo also indicates that the “Trump phenomenon” is forcing the GOP to learn some lessons from his success—and to reckon with some of the uncomfortable tensions within the party that his candidacy has laid bare.

Much of the seven-page, confidential document, which was obtained by The Washington Post, is anodyne. Its author, Ward Baker, pushes candidates to “remember the basics” by avoiding Washington-speak and emphasizing personal narratives as public servants. It suggests that candidates need to go beyond saying that “Washington is broken,” and instead demonstrate that they’ll “rip up the rotten roots and begin anew.” Those seem to be things any worthy political strategist would encourage during this election cycle.

What is exceptional, however, is the memo’s clear and open acknowledgement that Donald Trump is going to cause major problems for Republican candidates across the board in 2016:

Let’s face facts. Trump says what’s on his mind and that’s a problem. Our candidates will have to spend full time defending him or condemning him if that continues. And, that’s a place we never, ever want to be. It is certain that all GOP candidates will be tied in some way to our nominee...

So how do candidates avoid getting dragged into “every Trump statement and every Trump dust up?” It’s like walking on a political tight rope, according to Baker. He advises candidates to embrace the tactics that Trump supporters respect—his politically incorrect demeanor and unfaltering self-confidence—without espousing extreme views that might alienate voters in their states. “You’re running for the U.S. Senate so focus on that ... Keep the focus on your own campaign and the voters back home.” He also pleads with candidates to limit their criticisms of Trump: “Spending full time attacking our own nominee will ensure that the GOP vote is depressed. That will only serve to topple GOP candidates at every level.”

That advice makes sense on its face—run your own race, limit the intra-party attacks, and embrace the best elements of the “anti-Washington populist agenda.” But the fact that the NRSC felt it necessary to outline a separate-yourself-from-the-extremism-of-your-own-party’s-frontrunner strategy provokes a deeper question: How, just four years after Republicans nominated Mitt Romney—a candidate who was criticized by some party leaders for being too moderate—is a “misguided missile” like Trump racking up nearly a third of the party base’s support? It may indeed be a “phenomenon,” but it’s a phenomenon that provides a telling sign about woes within the party.

Consider the arc of the modern GOP. Since “movement conservatism” began to gain steam in the 1950s, small-government, anti-regulation, and hawkish ideas have been enshrined in Republican platforms and campaign rhetoric. In the 1980s and 1990s, the religious right gained prominence within the party, as well, producing three separate movements within the GOP. As Michael Lind put it last month in Politico Magazine, “Instead of trying to work out comprehensive public policies, libertarians specialized in economic policy, neoconservatives specialized in foreign policy, and religious conservatives specialized in determining licit and illicit sex and contraception.”

Republican strategists have often targeted issues that enjoy support from at least one segment of the party, and won’t offend the others. That’s not to say that many conservatives don’t identify with more than one of these ideologies—many do. But appealing to discrete segments of the party has been key for many candidates over the last few decades. In 2000, for example, George W. Bush emphasized school accountability and a smaller government role in healthcare to rally the libertarian base. But four years later against John Kerry, he avoided hard questions about the Iraq War and the lagging economy by emphasizing his hard-on-terror hawkishness and his support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, rallying neoconservatives and evangelicals.

In 2012, Mitt Romney managed to fend off criticisms that he was too moderate on social issues during the primary season by emphasizing his ability to turn around the economy on conservative principles—and continued to emphasize those qualities in the general election, given America’s leftward shift on other issues. Though he lost the election, Romney denounced Obama’s response to the economic collapse, and the fight against Obamacare dominated congressional and state-level elections.

Given this record, establishment candidates this year tried to appeal to libertarians by advocating large tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, to neoconservatives by promising to bolster national defense, and to religious conservatives by championing religious freedom. But they have failed to rally voters behind the usual platform.

Perhaps that’s because a mudslinging and politically incorrect candidate like Trump, who emerged on his own—without the usually necessary pre-campaign wooing of donors looking out for the interests of the establishment—has exacerbated a very real thirst for audacity shared by people with varying ideological leanings. His vague, yet brash Trumpisms—on everything from “bombing the hell out of the oil fields” controlled by ISIS, to putting an end to China “robbing Americans of billions of dollars” through trade reform, to suggesting that “certain mosques” should be surveilled or shut down—are resonating with a range of conservatives who have lost faith in the establishment.

His “farcical fits,” as Baker calls them, don’t fit the rhyme or reason that the GOP leadership wanted to see in the 2016 cycle, and they’ve forced scrutiny on issues that ultimately may not play well for the party this time around. He has, however, piqued the interest of voters who otherwise wouldn’t have heard such rhetoric on the campaign trail—which is where Baker sees a sliver of opportunity for candidates. “You don’t have to go along with his more extreme positioning,” he writes. “Instead, you should stake out turf in the same issue zone and offer your own ideas.”

Whether or not Trump manages to secure the nomination (even Baker isn’t convinced yet), he’s exposed fissures within the Republican Party that will eventually need to be addressed. In the meantime, though, Republicans up for election should simply plan, as the memo put it (underlining and italicizing for added emphasis), “not [to] be tied to him so closely that we have to engage in permanent cleanup or distancing maneuvers.