(AP: Erica Werner) — A key question looms for vulnerable Republican senators this election: If Donald Trump loses and loses big, can they still survive?
With 11 weeks until Election Day, Trump’s declining standing in the polls has GOP Senate candidates preparing for the worst, and they’re maneuvering now to put as big a margin as they can between themselves and the top of the ticket.
Some strategists foresee a historic Trump loss and the need to outrun the presidential nominee by at least five to 10 percentage points in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Hampshire and Florida, if Senate incumbents are to prevail in November. Such margins could be achieved, but it would not be easy, and most Republicans say there’s a limit to how big Trump could lose without taking down nearly every vulnerable congressional incumbent.
Already, GOP senators in Illinois and Wisconsin are widely considered unlikely to survive in November. Few expect the solidly Republican House to change hands, but losses of as many as 15 or 20 seats are forecast.
Most GOP strategists now view a Trump loss to Democrat Hillary Clinton as a certainty, and their only question is how big.
“I’m more likely to think that it’s going to be historic than that it’s going to be close,” said GOP strategist Rob Jesmer, formerly executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Democrats need to pick up four Senate seats to claim the majority if they hang onto the White House, since the vice president breaks tie votes. While Republicans are playing defense in more than a half-dozen heavily contested states, Democrats have only one seat at risk, in Nevada, where Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is retiring. Instead Democrats are expanding their list of pickup opportunities, adding Indiana by recruiting former Sen. Evan Bayh and working on North Carolina and Missouri.
This year, Republican senators and strategists are openly discussing split-ticket voting and messages aimed at convincing voters that a Hillary Clinton victory would only increase the imperative for a Republican Congress to act as a check on issues including Supreme Court nominations. Strategists anticipate that a clear pivot to that message could come after Labor Day.
Said GOP consultant Brian Walsh: “If Republicans lose the Senate the responsibility for that will lie solely with Donald Trump.”
University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato posted projections showing that Trump could lose the Electoral College vote to Hillary Clinton 347-191.