There's No Escaping the Top of the Ballot

Congressional Republicans are trying to distance themselves from Donald Trump by focusing on their local constituencies. But like it or not, presidential candidates drive the race.

Jae C. Hong / AP

Who says Donald Trump isn’t a uniter?

For years, decades even, political watchers have noted, and generally lamented, the growing nationalization of U.S. elections—the tendency of, say, voters in rural Ohio to back a House candidate based less on the individual running than on what national party he belongs to. Straight-ticket voting (going with the same team for every office) and a focus on national versus local issues has become the American way. And as polarization has increased, parties have been happy to exploit this ideological sorting—especially the team not controlling the White House. In the Obama era, this has meant down-ballot Republicans from New Hampshire to North Carolina to Nevada running not so much against their Democratic opponents as against the Democratic commander-in-chief. (Repeal Obamacare, anyone?)

Then came Trump. And just like that, the GOP decided en masse that maybe nationalization wasn’t such a hot idea this time around. Indeed, not in modern memory has a presidential candidate brought together so many of his own party’s strategists, aides, elected officials, fundraisers, and major donors in the belief that the best only way to salvage this cycle is for every other Republican on the ballot to run screaming from the top of the ticket.

OK. Maybe not screaming. Overt rejection would alienate Trump fans, who have a tendency to express their pique not only at the polls but also through whimsical social-media riffs rife with death threats and vows to sexually violate and/or dismember the family members of those who disrespect the Donald.

In talking with Republican Party players, however, a theme of subtle separation keeps popping up: that House, Senate, and other down-ballot candidates—particularly those in not-so-red states—should distance themselves from the presidential circus and go local.

“Across the board, our senators are running very localized campaigns,” said Andrea Bozek, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “In New Hampshire, for example”—a blue state where Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte is in a tough reelection fight against Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan—“they are talking a lot about the heroin epidemic. It’s a smart strategy.”

Sue Zoldak, a vice chair of the conservative RightNow Women PAC, reported of the House and Senate candidates her group is backing: “They’re very focused on their local constituents. I think that’s what everyone is doing.”

Sure, tying one’s Democratic opponent to the specter of a President Hillary Clinton has its temptations, but, considering the, um, volatility of the GOP standard-bearer, why risk wading into that particular mud fight? So whether it’s spotlighting heroin in New Hampshire, EPA water regulations in Wisconsin, or energy issues in Ohio, Republican congressional contenders are laboring to denationalize this election, wrapping themselves in legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s pet aphorism: “All politics is local.”

To which congressional expert Thomas Mann says: Good luck!

“First of all, it isn’t the party strategies that have nationalized or denationalized elections; it’s broad changes in our politics,” says Mann, a senior fellow with the nonpartisan Brookings Institution. Since the 1960s, polarization has been shrinking the number of Americans who split their votes between candidates of different parties, said Mann. (Things really picked up speed in the 1980s, he noted.) “And I don’t think Republicans’ saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to really go local,’ means they can have any material influence on the reality of the fact that most partisans now—including leaning independents—vote a straight party ticket.”

“The level of split-ticket voting between the presidential race and races in the House and Senate is down to about 5 percent at this point,” said Richard Pildes, a law professor at NYU who has written on the nationalization of U.S. elections. Getting that number up much higher, predicted Pildes, “will be like pushing a boulder up a hill.”

“It’s not as if this is a big change in strategy,” said Mann. “Even in recent years, members in competitive districts have tried to do whatever they can to enhance their local reputations. You always do that, even while you’re aware that most of the action has been nationalized.”

“It’s always the case that when the party candidate at the top of the ticket is unpopular in your district or state, you try to run away from them and run a much more locally focused campaign,” agreed Pildes. “It’s just gotten much harder to do that successfully with the intense polarization of parties and voters.”

To emphasize how much harder, multiple people pointed to the 2014 midterms. “Ask any of the 2014 red-state Democrats from the Senate how it went when they localized their races—but you’ll have a hard time reaching them, because they’re no longer in office,” quipped a Democratic campaign operative who requested anonymity to avoid offending colleagues. With the electorate feeling sour about President Obama that year, Dems tried to go local, recalled the operative. “But we still came up short.” As the quants over at FiveThirtyEight declared in the wake of the vote, “The 2014 Senate Elections Were the Most Nationalized in Decades.”

Presidential cycles are even tougher to denationalize, explained Mann: “For those Republicans running in blue or purple constituencies, they can try to focus attention on local issues, but many of those will be in states that are targeted for the presidential race. So there will be overwhelming communications there [by the presidential campaigns].” In other words, the more purple/competitive your state, the more likely it is that your voters will be subjected to a total-saturation level of presidential campaigning relentless enough to give them nightmares and nosebleeds. Good luck competing with—much less escaping—that as a mere Senate or House candidate.

Like it or not, White House contenders drive the race. “What’s important is who is at the top of the ticket and what are the relative turnout levels of the partisan bases,” said Mann. Because when voters dislike their party’s presidential choice, noted Pildes, their typical response come Election Day isn’t to leave that box blank or vote for the other team or write in a different candidate altogether. “It’s to stay home. Period.”

Then, of course, there are the Democrats, who (like the Republicans in 2014) will be busting their humps to nationalize the heck out of this cycle. For months now, they’ve been slapping GOP senators for refusing to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. “They have shown that they have absolutely no independence from their party,” said Sadie Weiner, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Trump’s ascendance takes things to a whole new level. “We’re obviously going to be making sure that Republican senators and candidates are held accountable for their support of Donald Trump,” Weiner told me. “Especially as he continues to insult women, African-Americans, Hispanics—pick a category.”

“Disassociating oneself from Trump in a competitive district or state is not rocket science. It’s survival,” said Mann. But as electoral strategies go, he stressed, “it’s not much.”