Down Ticket is Yahoo News’ complete guide to the most fascinating House, Senate and governors’ races of 2016. Coming to you every Tuesday and Thursday until Nov. 8. What you need to know today.
The worst of both worlds: These Republicans refuse to embrace or reject Trump — and voters are starting to punish them for it
Call it the Trump Tightrope.
Republicans who are not running for office this year have the luxury of rejecting their party’s controversial nominee outright. That’s what Maine Sen. Susan Collins did Monday when she wrote in the Washington Post that “Trump lacks the temperament, self-discipline and judgment required to be president.” It’s also what those 50 Republican national security officials did when they announced that “none of us will vote for Donald Trump.”
But if you’re a Republican who’s actually trying to get elected in November — especially in a true tossup contest — then your relationship with Trump is probably more … complicated. Endorse him unequivocally and your Democratic opponent will make you own every radioactive thing he says; break with him publicly and his passionate, plentiful supporters will call you a RINO and threaten to punish you on Election Day.
Faced with such unpalatable options, nearly all of this cycle’s most vulnerable Republican Senate candidates have tried to split the difference. First they’ve announced that they “intend to vote for/support the party’s nominee” — or something similarly tepid and legalistic — and then they’ve chided or avoided Trump whenever it serves their purposes.
In theory, this approach makes sense; it denies the press a damaging narrative (“GOP Senate Candidate Dumps Trump!”) while still keeping the Donald at arm’s length.
There’s only one problem: the tightrope strategy doesn’t actually seem to be working. The more scandalous stuff Trump says, the more his swing-state poll numbers fall — and the more his numbers fall, the thinner the Trump Tightrope gets. Trump fans don’t trust you. Democrats tie you to him no matter what you say. And eventually, you start to lose your balance.
No one has plummeted to his or her political death yet, but right now, incumbent New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte is looking like the wobbliest of the bunch.
After Trump dispatched his last two Republican rivals in early May, Ayotte’s communications director sent out the following statement: “As she’s said from the beginning, Kelly plans to support the nominee. As a candidate herself, she hasn’t and isn’t planning to endorse anyone this cycle.” Doesn’t get much more tightropey than that.
At the time, Ayotte was leading her Democratic opponent, Gov. Maggie Hassan, by an average of 3.5 percentage points in the polls. Some New Hampshire surveys showed Trump within striking distance of Clinton.
Since then, however, Trump has made misstep after misstep: attacking a Mexican-American judge, sparring with the parents of a fallen Muslim American soldier, wondering aloud whether “Second Amendment people” might stop Clinton from becoming president. His standing in New Hampshire seems to be tanking as a result. In May, the WBUR/MassINC poll showed him virtually tied with Clinton. Now it gives Hillary a staggering 17-point lead.
Ayotte hasn’t exactly shied away from criticizing Trump, and Trump himself has taken notice. But she is still “supporting” him. “I’ve said that I’m going to be voting for our nominee” is how she put it earlier this week.
Unfortunately for Ayotte, New Hampshirites appear to be turning against her (just like they’re turning against Trump). Four of the last six Granite State surveys have given Hassan the edge, and the most recent — the only one released after both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions — shows Ayotte trailing the governor by a perilous 10 percentage points.
Incumbent Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey is in a similar bind. He’s never been a big Trump guy. He initially backed Marco Rubio. He voted for Ted Cruz in his state’s April primary. He called Trump’s comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel “deeply offensive” and said that treating a Gold Star family with “anything” other than “gratitude and honor” is “inappropriate.” He hasn’t attended any of Trump’s four Keystone State events. He even characterized Trump’s campaign as “highly problematic.”
But Toomey has also said that “as a Republican elected official, I am inclined to support the nominee of my party,” and he hasn’t ruled out endorsing Trump at some later date. So as Trump has lost ground in Pennsylvania — Clinton’s average lead has grown from 0.5 percentage points on June 22 to 9.2 percentage points today — so has Toomey.
Before mid-July, Toomey was outpacing his Democratic rival, Katie McGinty, by 6.7 points on average. But McGinty — who delights in linking Toomey to Trump at every turn — has come out on top in six of the seven polls released since then, with an average lead of 2.6 percentage points. Cash infusions from the Koch brothers have helped keep the race close, but for Toomey, the trend lines aren’t encouraging.
There are some signs that Trump isn’t an impossible problem for these tossup GOP Senate candidates to solve. It may be that the more you cozy up to him, the worse you do. Since May, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman has made his distaste for Trump exceedingly clear, even as he continues to (technically) “support the Republican nominee” — and during that time he’s actually pulled ahead of former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland. (His campaign is also reaching out to voters at Clinton rallies.) On the flip side, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson was the only tightrope-walking Senate candidate to speak at Trump’s convention in Cleveland last month; he told USA Today that he is “going to do everything I can to help [Trump] win.” Now the polling in Wisconsin shows Trump trailing Clinton by 15 percentage points — triple last month’s margin — and Johnson losing to former Sen. Russ Feingold by 11.
On the other hand, disavowing Trump isn’t necessarily a silver bullet. In Illinois — a bluer state than New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio or Wisconsin — incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk leaped off the Trump tightrope last month when he rescinded his initial endorsement of the GOP nominee and declared that Trump was “too bigoted and racist” to be president. At an event Wednesday in Chicago, Kirk broke with his party — and, more pointedly, its Wall Builder in Chief — to push for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But the only public poll released this month shows Kirk’s Democratic rival, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, ahead by 7 percentage points.
In the midst of all of this bad news, Florida’s marquee Senate battle between Marco Rubio and Patrick Murphy might seem like a bright spot for the GOP. After all, Rubio seems to have built a fairly solid lead in the polls since pulling a 180 and jumping into the race in late June — and he’s a Trump tightroper too.
But examined more closely, Rubio’s relative success is probably more discouraging than encouraging for the GOP. If you recall, Rubio spent the better part of a year trying to stop Trump from becoming president. He has more wiggle room than pretty much any other Republican because voters already know how he really feels about the nominee.
None of Rubio’s fellow tightrope walkers, however, will get the same sort of space to maneuver. Instead, they’ll continue to totter for the next 88 days. The hope for the GOP is that they don’t fall off.
Ad Watch: Even John McCain is getting the Trump treatment
In Arizona, incumbent Sen. John McCain still needs to win his Aug. 30 primary before officially squaring off against Democratic challenger Ann Kirkpatrick. But that hasn’t stopped the two candidates from battering each other with negative general-election ads.
The latest volley is from Kirkpatrick, who currently represents Arizona’s First Congressional District in the House. In “Trumped,” Kirkpatrick attacks McCain for saying he will “support the nominee” more than “50 times” — even though Trump has repeatedly disparaged McCain’s military service and intelligence. The point, Kirkpatrick argues, is that McCain “has changed” — that he’s no longer the principled maverick who ran for president in 2000 and 2008.
Who knows if this message will work. Unlike Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, Illinois, New Hampshire or Pennsylvania, the Arizona Senate contest isn’t considered a tossup; McCain is a legend in the state, and every analyst insists that the race leans his way. Even in Kirkpatrick’s ad, the senator’s disgust with Trump is palpable; he looks and sounds a bit like a hostage being forced to repeat the phrase “I support the nominee.”
But perhaps that’s the point. The more Trump insults McCain — and the more Trump shoots off his mouth about stuff like “Second Amendment people,” which the Kirkpatrick camp quickly worked into its ad — the more McCain’s continued and repeated “support” for the “nominee” will serve to undermine his brand.
The latest polling shows Trump leading Clinton in Arizona by the slimmest of margins. And the most recent Arizona Senate survey actually put Kirkpatrick ahead. Going forward, McCain needs to be careful. It looks as if he may be walking the Trump Tightrope too.
Who won this week’s primaries — and what it means for November
By Chris Wilson
Minnesota’s Second Congressional District: The retirement of Republican congressman John Kline has put a seat that’s been under GOP control for 16 years into play for the Democrats. St. Jude Medical executive Angie Craig won the Democratic nomination running unopposed and if elected would be the first openly gay Minnesotan to represent the state in Congress. Things were far more interesting on the Republican side, where talk radio host Jason Lewis emerged from a four-way field with 48 percent of the vote.
Lewis — who won the endorsement of the state party back in May — has a long history of controversial statements:
Referred to victims of Hurricane Katrina as “a bunch of whiners.”
Stated that the “white population” in America was committing “political suicide” by not reproducing at higher rates and that “the median income for blacks in America would make them rich in most African nations, not most — all.”
Compared same-sex marriage to owning slaves. The quote from an audio book: “In fact, if you really want to be quite frank about it, how does somebody else owning a slave affect me? It doesn’t. If I don’t think it is right, I won’t own one, and people always say, ‘Well, if you don’t want to marry somebody of the same sex, you don’t have to, but why tell somebody else they can’t.’ Uh, you know if you don’t want to own a slave, don’t. But don’t tell other people they can’t.”
Said that young women are “ignorant” and only care about “getting me to pay for her pills,” abortion, gay marriage and “The View.”
In the aftermath of Lewis’ win, the Cook Political report has flipped this race from “Toss-up” to “Lean Dem.” In 2012, President Obama won the district by just over 200 votes.
Wisconsin’s Eighth Congressional District: Another retiring Republican congressman — Rep. Reid Ribble, who first won the seat in 2010 — will likely mean another tight race for a GOP seat. Former Marine captain and Scott Walker campaign adviser Mike Gallagher won the Republican nomination with over 70 percent of the vote and is set to go against Democrat Thomas Nelson, the Outagamie County executive and former state assemblyman. The district has a slight Republican lean but has had volatile results, with two Republicans and two Democrats alternating control of the seat since 1996. The district went twice for President George W. Bush, then flipped to President Obama in 2008 before going for Mitt Romney in 2012.
Vermont governor: Two early favorites pegged as potential upset candidates going into Tuesday emerged with comfortable wins in the race to elect a replacement for Democrat Peter Shumlin, the incumbent retiring after three terms. On the Democratic side, former state Rep. and Transportation Secretary Sue Minter prevailed over Google executive Matt Dunne, 51 percent to 38. She’ll be facing current Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who defeated former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman by 22 points despite a late deluge of negative ads. Scott, who was technically serving as acting governor Tuesday night due to a Shumlin vacation, won his current position with 62 percent of the vote in 2014. Both Dunne and Lisman have said they will support their former primary rivals in the November race. Interesting factor in the Green Mountain State, where former Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee is also running as a third-party candidate: If no one gets 50 percent of the ballot in the general, the state House of Representatives — which is largely Democratic — gets to decide.
Minnesota District 60B: Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, who has served in the Legislature since 1973, lost her seat in a competitive three-way primary to Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American community organizer. Omar was born in Somalia but immigrated to the U.S. after a four-year stay in a Kenyan refugee camp, settling in Minneapolis 20 years ago. She is a heavy favorite to win the left-leaning district in November and become the first Somali-American legislator in the country.
The best of the rest
— Heather Caygle (@heatherscope) August 11, 2016
Is split-ticket voting making a comeback? With Donald Trump on the ballot, some Republicans hope so. https://t.co/X9ZH24Bdrm
— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) August 11, 2016
Friends become foes in tense Democratic primary for Miami congressional district https://t.co/AEEPcxQ6G9
— SANDALIO CARMONA (@SANDALIOCARMONA) August 11, 2016
— Simone Pathe (@sfpathe) August 11, 2016
Fla: Rubio 48 — Murphy 45
Ohio: Portman 49 — Strickand 40
Pa: McGinty 47 — Toomey 44https://t.co/YYqsxrC7ij
— Joe Perticone (@JoePerticone) August 11, 2016
— Seung Min Kim (@seungminkim) August 11, 2016
— Michelle Hackman (@MHackman) August 10, 2016
There's been less coverage of Khizr and Gazala Kahn this week, but here's a new story that's emblematic: the… https://t.co/bgTthWKTfY
— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) August 11, 2016