The path has been vertiginous, nauseating, and scary, and the side effects may last for years to come, but it looks increasingly likely that Democrats will control the White House on January 21. But that prize will mean a lot less if a President Hillary Clinton can’t get her policies, and appointees, through Congress. Look no further than Senator John McCain’s promise on Tuesday that a Republican Senate would block any Clinton Supreme Court nominee. McCain later withdrew the remark, but his comments make clear how much difference control of Capitol Hill could make to Clinton’s success.
Figuring out how to best use the Trump campaign’s chaotic, divisive approach as a lever to win a Democratic Congress remains a quandary for Democrats. Earlier in the campaign, many top figures seemed to view tying Trump to the Republican Party as a winning move, suggesting that he was simply a blunter, less refined version of the same old Republican Party of the Obama years.
In April, for example, Clinton said, “It’s not just Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. What they are saying is what most of the Republican elected officials believe.” But as BuzzFeed points out, the Democratic nominee has seldom made any comment like that since. One reason for that was that Trump became more and more strident—insinuating that President Obama was a traitor, attacking a federal judge for his heritage, accusing Ted Cruz’s father of conspiring to assassinate JFK—it became harder to portray Trump as simply another Republican.
Clinton decided to run with that. In a hacked message revealed by WikiLeaks, DNC staffers discussed how the Clinton campaign had made a strategic decision to try to decouple Trump from the rest of the GOP, calculating that the risks of normalizing Trump by making him seem like just another Republican outweighed the benefits of collateral damage Trump might to do other Republicans. Clinton dialed back her rhetoric. She began courting Republican endorsements. Former GOP officials who had decided to back her got prominent billing at the Democratic National Convention in July, which struck a patriotic, perhaps jingoistic pose that seemed custom-made to appeal to wavering conservatives.
That worked, to a degree. Dozens of Republicans, including former senators, congressmen, and cabinet members, announced they would back Clinton. A host of staunchly Republican newspapers endorsed her, in some cases making it their first Democratic endorsement in decades—or ever. But while Clinton has built her formidable lead, that hasn’t translated into a predicted Democratic landslide in the House and Senate.
On the Senate side, FiveThirtyEight gives a nearly three-in-four chance of Democratic control. The Upshot offers a more sober 60 percent chance. But there are peculiar results on the board. Clinton holds a solid lead in New Hampshire, but Democrat Maggie Hassan has been unable to break away from Senator Kelly Ayotte. Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey was thought to be one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the chamber, but he’s keeping the race close, too. (If Democrats had recruited stronger candidates, they might be doing better in the Ohio Senate race and winning in the North Carolina contest.)
The House side offers less hope for progressives. Although Democrats now hold a sizable lead on the generic ballot (i.e., “Would you vote for a Democrat or a Republican for U.S. House?”), their odds of actually winning the chamber remain slim, for reasons that include the big Republican edge now, gerrymandering, and Democrats being disadvantageously packed into urban districts.
So what are Democrats to do? Clinton’s overtures to Trump-hating Republicans have largely disappeared, and it’s reasonable to assume that they already achieved their maximum impact. But they haven’t been replaced by a coherent new strategy. That’s visible in a pair of stories Tuesday. Ruby Cramer and Nathaniel Meyersohn report on how Clinton seems determined to hold back on the GOP. Alex Seitz-Wald, meanwhile, reports that Clinton aides are plotting a more aggressive message. Any friction between these two storylines seems to indicate continued lack of agreement, not inaccurate reporting.
The man to watch here is Obama, because even as Clinton holds back the president is speaking more aggressively. But while some reports have portrayed this as a full return to the approach from spring, a close look at what Obama’s saying demonstrates that he’s attempting a sort of hybrid approach, both tying Republicans to Trump but also creating a certain amount of distance.
In Greensboro, North Carolina, last week, for example, Obama said he does not believe that every Republican elected official thinks the way Donald Trump does .… The overwhelming majority of Republicans, they love their families, they love this country. They’re good and decent people doing all kinds of good things.” Yet he also held them partly accountable for Trump, and he prodded them to publicly break with the Republican nominee:
Over the last eight, 10, depending on however long you want to say, if you’ve been only about obstruction, if in order to score political points, you tell your voter base crazy stuff—like I wasn’t born here, or that I’m a Muslim, or that—well, it’s just a long list—and you just repeat it over and over again, and so that your only agenda is negative, and you just make up facts—so if 99 percent of scientists say the planet is getting warmer and this is something you should worry about, and then you bring a snowball into the Senate chambers and say it was snowing outside so you must be wrong—using that as evidence to dispute scientists, that over time what happens is that you produce a nominee who is all about obstruction and insults, and makes up his own facts. Now, I don’t think that’s how the majority of Republicans think, but this is the habits that you get into that create this kind of nominee.
There are some reasons to think that going full-bore on connecting Trump with Republicans could be risky. As much as Democrats would like to convince voters who can’t vote for Trump that they shouldn’t vote for Republican candidates downballot either, Clinton’s chances at having a Democratic Senate depend partly on ticket-splitters, too. The chances of Clinton winning, say, Missouri or Indiana are vanishingly remote, but Democratic Senate candidates Jason Kander and Evan Bayh both have a decent shot at victory. On Monday, the Clinton campaign announced that it’s investing in both of those states, as part of a push to expand the map. There’s a risk of backfire there.
Meanwhile, the widening feud between high-profile Republicans and the Trump campaign makes it harder to argue that they’re all peas in the same pod. Much has been made of Paul Ryan’s dilemma. The speaker of the House announced last week that in the wake of the tape in which Trump boasts about sexually assaulting women, he would no longer defend Trump, and would concentrate on helping preserve the House. Ryan is in a bind: He doesn’t want to be seen as condoning Trump, but a total split with him could alienate Trump voters and imperil the House. (Obama mocked Ryan, though not by name, in Greensboro. “Now you’ve got people saying, well, we strongly disapprove, we really disagree, we find those comments disgusting, but we’re still endorsing him, we still think he should be president—that doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.)
Monday night, Trump renewed his periodic attacks on Ryan ahead of an interview in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Trump suggested Ryan doesn’t want him to win. “Maybe he wants to run in four years or maybe he doesn’t know how to win … Maybe he just doesn’t know how to win. I mean, who can really know. But I know I’m in his territory and they are all screaming for Trump," Trump told ABC’s Tom Llamas. “I don’t want to be knocking Paul Ryan. I think he could be more supportive to the Republican nominee.”
But maybe there’s a silver lining for the speaker in all of this. Trump’s continued feud with him helps to create a separation between himself and the nominee even without Ryan having to withdraw his endorsement. He can have his cake and eat it too. While some Trump fans love his brawl with the GOP establishment, his more strategically minded supporters wring their hands nervously, concerned that he can’t win while fighting with Republican leaders.
If you proceed from the assumption that Trump isn’t going to win anyway, however, the feud starts to look more like a blessing in disguise, granting downballot Republicans some distance from their toxic nominee. That, in turn, makes Democrats’ decision on whether to connect them to Trump, and how best to do it, even harder.