New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte may soon have a problem, likely a common one for GOP senators who, like her, are up for re-election in November. His name is Donald Trump.
“She can't embrace him and win in November,” said Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the state’s Republican Party. “She can only do so much to distance herself from him in the meantime.”
Trump dominated the state’s Republican primary on Feb. 9, when a coalition of independents and Republicans in the state gave him a 20-point victory. But the general election is liable to be different—his approval rating in the state hovers near 20 percent. If current polling there holds, Trump would lose by 19 points to Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton.
The presidential race plays a crucial, tidal role in so-called down-ballot races, exerting an inexorable pull that's difficult to resist. This year, with Trump trailing in most national polls, it’s an extremely dangerous environment for certain Republican senators. With Democrats hoping to pick up at least five seats, which would put them back in the majority, they’re targeting Ayotte, Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, and several others in blue or purple states.
All of the endangered GOP incumbents are adopting versions of the same strategy: Localize and personalize. There will be no more statewide ads on Obamacare. Instead, voters will hear about how their representatives brought home the bacon, even if they had to buck party leaders, or even party orthodoxy, to do it.
The challenge is to surf Trump’s outsider wave—and not alienate his voters—without being trapped in some of his noxious positions and personal unpopularity. Candidates “should be, and I'm sure they will be, highlighting how they’re different from Washington as usual,” said Los-Angeles based GOP ad maker Fred Davis.
The Trump problem, and its potential solution, were diagnosed early. A memo from executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee written in September, when it began to become apparent that Trump was more than a summer fling, advised Republicans to run their own races if they ended up beneath Trump on a ballot.
“Keep the focus on your own campaign and the voters back home,” the director, Ward Baker, wrote.
In recent weeks, the NRSC doubled down on the approach. “Our campaigns will be running sheriff-type races where were going to understand precinct by precinct what is going to be driving voters to the polls and making sure that we’re talking to those voters about those issues and highlighting why our Democratic alternatives are unacceptable,” said Andrea Bozek, spokeswoman for the NRSC. “That old adage that all politics is local is still true today and is going to be extremely important to our 2016 Senate candidates and their races.”
Ayotte, who’s running against New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan, is planning to focus on those sheriff-type issues while telling a localized personal story. Ayotte was attorney general, after all. She does her grocery shopping near the full-time home in New Hampshire she returns to weekly, often before hosting a town hall with constituents, the campaign has said. Her son attends a local Cub Scout troop, and her husband runs a local business.
“It’s like she’s running for mayor,” said Jamie Burnett, who served as deputy campaign manager for Senator John E. Sununu's unsuccessful 2008 re-election campaign. “She has really been one of the most visible federal elected officials that I think most people could remember.”
The implication is that the race is about New Hampshire voters, not the national Republican Party. The campaign talks about Ayotte’s work on opioid abuse, her support for President Barack Obama’s clean power plan, and collaboration with New Hampshire’s senior senator, Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, on concerns for local fisherman.
"Kelly's campaign is focused on sharing her positive message of working across the aisle to deliver results for New Hampshire," Ayotte spokesperson Liz Johnson said in an e-mail. "She's helped pass key legislation to address the heroin epidemic, she's been a strong advocate for the men and women at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and Pease Air National Guard Base, and she recently fought to renew an important conservation program that protects New Hampshire's open spaces."
Locals will be brought in to testify to all of this come fall, when Ayotte is widely expected to have dispensed with a primary challenger: She’s a local leader, yes, but not of the much-reviled Washington establishment. Their message will be that it’s Hassan—who campaigned alongside Clinton in February—who’s part of a machine.
Hassan’s team, meanwhile, has already been reminding voters of Ayotte’s ties to Trump, even if she is simply saying she will support the Republican nominee.
“New Hampshire voters should be very concerned at Ayotte's failure to oppose Trump's run for the White House,” said Hassan’s communications director, Aaron Jacobs, who said Ayotte and Trump have similar views on many issues.
Kirk’s campaign manager, Kevin Artl, says it wasn’t Trump that pushed them to localize—the campaign has always expected the Republican at the top of the ticket would get squashed, whoever the nominee.
“We’ve been preparing and running with the expectation that a Democrat will win Illinois maybe by 10 points,” Artl said.
That means that, to win against Democratic Representative Tammy Duckworth, who is challenging him, Kirk has to outperform the top of the ticket by five or six points.
The key to making up this deficit, according to Artl, is to focus on Kirk’s personal brand: “Fiscal conservative, social moderate, national security hawk,” he describes it. Artl mentions Kirk's support for immigration reform, gay marriage and abortion rights, and the fact that he speaks Spanish.
The campaign is pressing hard on that specific qualification. It provided (partial) internal polling that said Kirk was beating Duckworth among Hispanics by more than six points in April. Artl said the candidates are essentially tied with independent women.
When he goes on the offensive, the strategy will be to paint Duckworth as the real Washington insider. Kirk might target Duckworth’s endorsement of Clinton, Artl said, but he’s more likely to hit her over a lawsuit against her from her time as head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as the fact that former Governor Rod Blagojevich, who is imprisoned on corruption charges, appointed her to the position.
“I expect this race to get very localized and she’s going to have to defend her associations,” Artl said.
For Kirk, it will be an uphill struggle: A March Marist poll put Clinton up by 25 points in Illinois, and Kirk’s own internals have him behind Duckworth by about three points, albeit within the margin of error.
Democrats’ Dream Come True
The Democrats' target list has been growing as awareness has deepened of Trump's negatives. Johnson, who like Ayotte and Kirk was elected in a purple state during the Tea Party wave of 2010 and now seems to find himself at odds with a presidential-year electorate, may have made Democrats’ jobs easiest by saying he’d campaign with Trump—as Don and Ron, no less—even while stopping short of an endorsement. Ohio’s Rob Portman and Pennsylvania Pat Toomey have long been in the Democrats’ crosshairs, but with the possibility of an anti-Trump wave, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has added senators like Roy Blunt of Missouri, Richard Burr of North Carolina, and even John McCain of Arizona to the seats it believes are in play.
The question of whether they’d support Trump is already coming up almost daily for Kirk and Ayotte, both of whom have said they’d back the eventual Republican nominee but wouldn’t speak much on Trump unless and until he was the party’s standard-bearer.
Baker, of the NRSC, wrote in his memo that candidates could still take “Trump to task on outrageous statements” without getting bogged down in day-to-day bombast, even while channeling some of his “authenticity” and broadsides at what he has taken to calling “a rigged system.”
Davis, the ad maker and strategist, says the point isn’t to ape his anger, necessarily, or even to run from experience in government to appeal to his voters. “You can win without being a Donald Trump supporter. You can win without being a Ted Cruz supporter. You can't win by being a Washington supporter.”
Others, though, believe that rejecting Trump is the only avenue for endangered candidates, possibly in the form of a kind of Sister Souljah moment. In “New Hampshire at least, the premium is placed on independence rather than sort of blind commitment or blind obedience,” said Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general, said. “There will come some issue where she can make some very public break or distinction from where the national tickets are.”
Still, no separation from the national ticket may be wide enough to withstand what may be coming in November. “I think she’s been doing everything right,” Cullen said of Ayotte. But “wave elections are Old Testament gods. They are vengeful, wrathful.”