Trump's Slide Leaves Republicans Anxious About Holding Control of Congress

The Republican nominee's third major campaign shakeup this week did little to assuage concerns among strategists.

Paul Manafort speaks with the press during an election night event in New York on April 19, 2016.

Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

A campaign that Republican leaders have been praying will soften its rhetoric is now led by Stephen K. Bannon, the chief of the scorched-earth Breitbart News. A candidate who bragged during the primary about having no need for pollsters now has one, Kellyanne Conway, as campaign manager. And campaign chairman Paul Manafort, a Washington insider who worked to repair and strengthen ties with Republican leaders, is out.

The resignation of Manafort on Friday completed Donald Trump's third major staff shakeup this year, but it also signaled a new phase of uncertainty for Republicans nervous about maintaining control of Congress.

Trump's polling slide since the July party conventions has led to diminished standing of Republicans in competitive Senate races. The nonpartisan Cook Political report shifted five race ratings this summer—all toward Democrats. The GOP is likely to lose four to six Senate seats, said Cook analyst Jennifer Duffy. Democrats need five to secure the majority; four if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency.

The harsh reality for down-ballot Republicans in tight races is that the Trump campaign is dragging down their prospects, and despite the shakeup they're being urged by some strategists to distance themselves from the nominee.

"Trump won't be making any attempt to unify the party, which may make it easier for down ballot Republicans to distance themselves from Trump and for the RNC to shift resources away after the first presidential debate," said Texas-based Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, reacting to this week's shakeups. "The Senate majority was in danger all along, but now it really looks tough."

In the House, Republicans are currently projected to lose between 10 and 20 House seats, said David Wasserman, an analyst for the Cook Political Report. Democrats need to pick up 30 seats to win the majority, which Wasserman describes as "not unthinkable, but it's unlikely" under current circumstances.

"As for what the changes in [Trump] personnel do—nothing. Everyone keeps expecting some new Trump to emerge. That other persona doesn't exist," said Rory Cooper, a Republican communications strategist who opposes Trump. "Trump will be Trump and that threatens the Republican grip on Congress and in other state and local races."

Some Republicans see a ray of hope in Trump's latest attempt at charting a new course by making a rare statement expressing "regret" Thursday night for some of his rhetoric that "may have caused personal pain."

"The Republicans in the House will maintain the majority as long as they keep their focus on the people instead of the politics," Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a member of the hardline Freedom Caucus, told Bloomberg Politics.

"Manafort's resignation will have far less impact on the presidential race and down ballot candidates than Donald Trump's speech in North Carolina yesterday," he said. "His willingness to admit he has said things he shouldn't have said and made mistakes is of far greater concern to voters than who runs a campaign."

Stuart Stevens, a Republican strategist involved in down-ballot races this cycle, fretted that if a new Trump ad on immigration reflects the direction of the campaign, Republicans could sink to the single-digits among Hispanics in battleground states like Florida in this election cycle and severely damage the party's appeal in future ones as well. 

"It's a disaster," said Stevens, an outspoken critic of Trump.

But Trump-allied Republicans saw the latest shakeup as a reason to believe that Trump was serious about eliminating distractions that threatened his chances, like scrutiny of Manafort's work for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine.

"Look at how many generals President Lincoln had to go through during the the Civil War," said Representative Tom Marino of Pennsylvania, one of the first House Republican to back Trump. "This is a war."

—With assistance from Billy House

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