Down Ticket #3: Republicans want to keep Congress by sacrificing Trump. Good luck with that.

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Andrew Romano
·West Coast Correspondent
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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.

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In 1996, the GOP dumped Dole to save its congressional majorities. Why the same trick won’t work with Trump.

For Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, it must be like déjà vu all over again.

You may have missed the news while you were doing whatever it is that normal people do with their summer weekends, but Trump is in even bigger electoral trouble this week than he was the week before.

With the Donald continuing to falter and flail, the Republican Party is now strategizing about dumping its nominee — financially, at least — and redirecting its resources to down-ticket races.

First, on Thursday, more than 70 prominent Republicans signed an open letter to Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus urging him to divert all of the cash the RNC is currently spending on Trump to vulnerable GOP House and Senate candidates. (That number climbed to 110 this week after Virginia Rep. Scott Rigell and Wisconsin Rep. Reid Ribble, both of whom are retiring, added their names to the request, along with former Reps. Bob Inglis of South Carolina and Jim Kolbe of Arizona.)

“Every dollar spent by the RNC on Donald Trump’s campaign is a dollar of donor money wasted on the losing effort of a candidate who has actively undermined the GOP at every turn,” the letter read. “The RNC should shift its strategy and its resources to convince voters not to give Hillary Clinton the ‘blank check’ of a Democrat-controlled Congress to advance her big government agenda.”

Then, on Saturday, an RNC official began laying the groundwork for such a shift by telling a group of reporters in an off-the-record session that Trump would have only himself to blame for a defeat in November.

“In the words of one person in the room,” according to Politico, “the message was that the RNC has ‘all these staffers out there working and knocking on doors, with a data system they believe rivals what Obama built in 2012 — so it’s not their fault.’”

This isn’t the first time the GOP has gone down this road … which brings us back to Paul Manafort.

Exactly two decades ago, Manafort was a top strategist for Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole. At least six other Trump staffers worked for Dole that year too.

All of them likely recall how Dole’s campaign ended: with the GOP giving up on its presidential candidate.

Convinced that incumbent President Bill Clinton would rout the veteran Kansas senator on Election Day, Republican operatives explicitly told “their party’s Congressional candidates to cut loose from Bob Dole and press voters to maintain a Republican majority” in order to “deny a re-elected President Clinton a ‘blank check.,’” as the New York Times reported. The National Republican Congressional Committee went on to launch a $4 million ad blitz designed to deliver the same message to 50 hard-fought congressional districts.

“The liberal special interests aligned with Clinton desperately want to buy back control of Congress,’’ the NRCC ad claimed. “If we give the special interests a blank check in Congress, who’s going to represent us?”

It was a devastating blow for Dole, who lost to Clinton by 220 electoral votes. And yet, for the party as a whole, the “blank check” strategy was a success: Republicans retained control of the House and actually picked up two seats in the Senate that November.

Clearly the RNC is hoping that a Congress-first approach will work a second time around — whatever happens to Trump.

But will it?

Not necessarily. There are a few big differences between 1996 and 2016 that will make it tougher for the GOP to save Congress by shunning its nominee.

The first is that it’s remarkably early for this sort of chatter. In 1996, the initial “blank check” story didn’t appear in the press until Oct. 18 — a mere 18 days before the election. That was by design. As veteran Republican consultant Eddie Mahe told the New York Times, the party was worried that ‘‘pull[ing] the trigger too soon” would “alienat[e] base Republicans.”

Mr. Mahe suggested that the tactic, which might ‘‘buy two, three or four points,’’ could be effective even if used only in the last three or four days of the campaign, when those base Republicans, too, would not be offended by an open discussion of Mr. Dole’s circumstances.

Base Republicans aren’t abandoning Trump. On the contrary — they still seem to adore him. Speculating about throwing their hero under the bus nearly three months before Election Day is not a good way to encourage them to show up and vote for GOP House and Senate candidates in November.

This is especially true because, compared with Dole, Trump still looks like he has a shot. Dole was trailing by as many as 17 percentage points in late August; Trump is currently behind by an average of 7. Bill Clinton slipped below the 50 percent threshold only a couple of times; Hillary Clinton rarely clears it. The earlier the RNC bails on Trump, the more inclined base voters will be to blame the party for deserting him. They may stay home as a result.

The second difference between 1996 and 2016 is absentee voting, which has become a lot more widespread over the last decade or so. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 37 states now allow voters to cast their ballots before Election Day; some mail their no-excuse absentee ballots to voters as early as next month. This puts the RNC in an even tougher position. Shift resources away from Trump sooner rather than later and, again, the base will revolt; wait until the last minute, however, and many voters will have already cast their ballots.

Then there’s polarization to consider. On the surface, Trump’s poll numbers appear to be more promising than Dole’s. But the fact that in 1996 Republicans were able to keep control of Congress despite losing the presidency by nearly 9 percentage points may ultimately say less about the brilliance of their “blank check” strategy than it does about the willingness of some voters — in the past — to bounce back and forth between the two parties as they worked their way down the ballot.

Split-ticket voting used to be fairly common; in 1972, for instance, 44 percent of congressional districts voted for one party in the presidential race and another in their local House contest. By 2012, however, that number had declined to 6 percent. To save the Senate from Trump, Republicans would have to revive the practice.

Finally, there’s the nominee himself. In mid-August 1996, 58 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of Dole; only 35 percent saw him unfavorably. Dole wasn’t tarnishing the GOP brand.

Trump is. In fact, his current ratings are almost the exact opposite of Dole’s: 32.8 percent favorable versus 61.5 percent unfavorable. Those are the worst numbers in the history of presidential-election polling and the GOP’s stats are almost as bad.

In 1996, it wasn’t all that difficult to convince swing voters to support Republican House and Senate candidates even if they weren’t supporting Dole. But this year, thanks to Trump, Republicans have a much more challenging case to make.

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By the numbers

3: The number of times Democratic New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan was asked Tuesday whether Hillary Clinton is “honest” and/or “trustworthy”; also the number of times Hassan refused to answer. Hassan is running against GOP incumbent Kelly Ayotte to represent New Hampshire in the U.S. Senate.

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The race to watch this week: Liz Cheney in Wyoming

There isn’t a ton of primary action this Tuesday — especially compared with the next round of voting on Aug. 30, when voters in Arizona and Florida will decide whether John McCain, Marco Rubio and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (among others) will advance to the general election.

Alaska’s primary today will probably be a snooze. Six years ago, Sen. Lisa Murkowski lost her primary to a tea party challenger before bouncing back to win the general election as a write-in candidate; this time she has run a more aggressive campaign and should easily dispatch Republican challengers Paul Kendall, Thomas Lamb, and Bob Lochner. And while Edgar Blatchford, Richard Grayson, and Ray Metcalfe will be competing for the Democratic Senate nod, it doesn’t really matter who comes out on top — the seat is safely Republican. Longtime GOP Congressman Don Young is all but guaranteed to win reelection as well.

Still, this week does feature one fascinating contest: the Republican primary for Wyoming’s at-large seat in the U.S. House. Like Alaska, Wyoming is safely Republican, so Tuesday’s drama won’t have anything to do with the larger battle for control of Congress. Instead, it will all be about who the GOP chooses to send to Washington — or, more specifically, whether the GOP will choose the daughter of a former vice president.

That’s right: Liz Cheney is back.

Three years ago, Dick’s elder daughter enraged the Wyoming political establishment by trying to challenge primary Sen. Mike Enzi. She wound up dropping her bid six months after it began.

Now she’s vying against eight rivals for the seat that previously belonged to retiring GOP Rep. Cynthia Lummis. Cheney is the favorite, with sky-high name recognition and 15 times as much cash as her closest competitor.

In the only public poll of the race, Cheney led with 21 percent of the vote — well ahead of House Speaker Pro Tempore Tim Stubson (9 percent) and state Sen. Leland Christensen (4 percent). (NB: Cheney is an unabashed Trump supporter.)

That said, 52 percent of Wyoming Republicans told the same polling outfit that they were undecided — a staggering number in a contest with nine options. And on Sunday, Sen. Rand Paul — who has been feuding with Dick Cheney for years — came out and endorsed Christensen in attempt to turn Wyoming’s libertarian-leaning electorate against a member of America’s most prominent neoconservative family.

“It’s important that there are different varieties of Republicans,” Paul said. “I think there are big-government Republicans who believe that they want sort of an imperial presidency that can take us to war anywhere and everywhere at any time.”

We’ll see Tuesday night which vision of conservatism Wyoming Republicans prefer.

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Bernie Sanders’ ‘revolution’ continues in Florida — or does it?

When Bernie Sanders finally conceded the Democratic presidential nominating contest to Hillary Clinton last month, he vowed to continue his “revolution” under the auspices of a social welfare group called … Our Revolution.

At the time, Sanders vowed to “do everything that we can to defeat Donald Trump and elect Hillary Clinton.”

Since then, however, Sanders has focused mostly on doing everything he can to defeat establishment Democrats by boosting their progressive primary challengers.

So far, his record is mixed. According to the Washington Post, Sanders is “2-for-4 when it comes to major congressional candidates he’s endorsed.” Breakout progressive star Zephyr Teachout won her June primary for a swing seat in New York’s Hudson Valley, and Pramila Jayapal recently advanced to her general election in the Seattle area; meanwhile, Eric Kingson lost in New York and Lucy Flores lost in Nevada.

Sanders’ biggest test, however, is yet to come. On Aug. 30, Bernie acolyte Tim Canova will challenge longtime Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz in Florida’s 23rd Congressional District. Sanders has been at war with the former Democratic National Committee chair for months, first accusing her of rigging the Democratic primary for Hillary Clinton and then, in the wake of last month’s DNC email hack, leading the charge that led to her resignation from the party’s top post. All along, he’s been ginning up support for Canova, a law professor, via his powerful email list and fundraising operation.

Does Canova have a chance? His best opportunity to knock off Wasserman Schultz may have come this past weekend, when, after months of demands, he finally got to debate the incumbent on local TV. But the consensus in South Florida political circles is that Canova didn’t make the most of it.

Here’s Andrew Abramson of the Sun Sentinel:

Canova held his own against Wasserman Schultz, a skilled debater despite rarely having meaningful competition in her 11-year Congressional career. But there was no game changer, no moment where a soft Wasserman Schultz supporter would likely jump to Canova’s side. … Canova simply didn’t and probably couldn’t do enough in the lone debate to drastically change the narrative.

And here’s Jim DeFede of CBS Miami, who moderated the debate:

Rather than drive home [his attacks about the DNC hack] and try to keep Wasserman Schultz on the ropes, [Canova] made a joke about nobody caring about her emails — a play on the line Bernie Sanders used during his debate with Hillary Clinton.

On Sunday, however, it fell flat and actually undermined what he had said previously. Canova had recently filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission about the DNC support for Wasserman Schultz.

Time and again Canova missed opportunities to press his case against Wasserman Schultz. Given the fairly easy question on how he would attempt to pass a $15 an hour federal minimum wage, Canova spoke briefly about building a coalition with labor and then seemed stymied, before finally turning to DeFede, the moderator, and asking: “You tell me how do we get to $15 an hour minimum wage?”

Without missing a beat, Wasserman Schultz jumped in: “I’d be happy to tell you.”

In another exchange, Canova was asked to “make the case” as to why he believes Wasserman Schultz was out of touch with her community and too beholden to special interests.

However, rather than connect the dots between Wasserman Schultz’s campaign donors and votes she’s taken to benefit them, Canova cited a recent 60 Minutes story about how members of Congress spend as much as 30 hours a week seeking campaign contributions.

Not helping matters: the fact that Wasserman Schultz scheduled the debate for 8 a.m. on a Sunday — not exactly primetime — and Canova’s inability to counter when his opponent criticized him for not really knowing the district.

At one point, DeFede asked Canova whether he knew the name of the mayor of Southwest Ranches, a town in Broward County.

“I’m not going to play that game,” Canova said. “No, I do not. And I’m not going to play that game.”

“It’s Jeff Nelson, by the way,” Wasserman Schultz chimed in.

“Very good, thank you very much,” Canova said, annoyed.

“He’s also the assistant principal at Cypress Bay High School,” she added with a smile.

It’s unlikely, at this point, that Canova will be able to win a district that has voted for Wasserman Schultz in every election since 1992. His internal polls show him trailing by 8 percentage points. Pro-DWS polls show her up by 33. In April’s presidential primary, Clinton clobbered Sanders in the heavily Jewish 23rd with more than 70 percent of the vote. Still, stranger things have happened — especially in Florida. Stay tuned for more.

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The best of the rest


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Countdown

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