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.”