Release: Wednesday, October 12, 2016
“Mrs. Clinton’s campaign has concluded that at least two traditionally Republican states, Georgia and Arizona, are realistic targets for her campaign to win over. And Republican polling has found that Mr. Trump is at dire risk of losing Georgia, according to people briefed on the polls, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.”
NEW YORK TIMES // ALEXANDER BURNS and JONATHAN MARTIN
Donald J. Trump’s intensifying battle with his own party is tearing open the nation’s political map, pulling Republicans across the country into a self-destructive feud that could imperil dozens of lawmakers in Congress and potentially throw conservative-leaning states into Hillary Clinton’s column.
Democrats are moving swiftly to exploit Mr. Trump’s crumbling position in the presidential race, aiming to run up a big margin of victory for Mrs. Clinton and extend their political advantage into the congressional elections next month.
Mrs. Clinton’s campaign has concluded that at least two traditionally Republican states, Georgia and Arizona, are realistic targets for her campaign to win over. And Republican polling has found that Mr. Trump is at dire risk of losing Georgia, according to people briefed on the polls, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Mrs. Clinton now holds such a strong upper hand that Priorities USA, a “super PAC” backing her campaign, may direct some of its war chest into Senate races, two people said, and may begin broadcasting ads for those contests as soon as next week. Congressional Democrats also hope to persuade Mrs. Clinton to continue pouring money and campaign resources into states like Virginia and Colorado, where they believe her victory is assured, in order to lift other Democratic candidates.
In a signal of Democrats’ growing focus on the House and Senate, Mrs. Clinton used a visit on Tuesday to Miami to attack both Mr. Trump and Senator Marco Rubio, whom Mrs. Clinton blasted for what she described as his indifference to climate change.
“We need to elect people up and down the ballot, at every level of government, who take it seriously,” Mrs. Clinton said, adding, “It is an unacceptable response for Marco Rubio, when asked about climate change, to say, ‘I’m not a scientist.’”
Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, John D. Podesta, told reporters that she would continue to call out down-ballot Republicans. Mr. Rubio is among the Republicans whom Priorities USA may seek to defeat, if the group decides to intervene in Senate races, one strategist said.
Increasingly anxious Republicans have not come up with a unified strategy for containing the damage from Mr. Trump’s embattled candidacy, and several strategists and party officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said they were awaiting a new round of polling before settling on a course. But, in a sign that Republicans now view the presidential race as a lost cause, several Senate candidates are preparing ads asking voters to elect them as a check on Mrs. Clinton in the White House.
Yet Mr. Trump himself, having been rejected in recent days by dozens of Republican elected officials, has indicated that he will make any separation an exceptionally messy and painful ordeal for the party.
Mr. Trump lashed out publicly on Tuesday morning at two of his best-known critics: Senator John McCain of Arizona, who withdrew his endorsement of Mr. Trump over the weekend, and Paul D. Ryan, the speaker of the House, who informed congressional Republicans on Monday that he would no longer defend Mr. Trump.
Seething on Twitter, Mr. Trump attacked Mr. Ryan as “weak and ineffective” and described Mr. McCain as “very foul mouthed.” And in a Fox News interview, Mr. Trump mocked both men as disloyal, reserving special venom for Mr. Ryan.
“Paul Ryan opened borders and amnesty and bad budgets,” Mr. Trump said.
He declared himself a liberated man, writing on Twitter:. “It is so nice that the shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to.”
Should Mr. Trump continue deriding the leaders of the institutional Republican Party, it could have profound consequences down the ballot, potentially depressing turnout by demoralizing the party or leading Mr. Trump’s ardent supporters to deny their votes to Republicans who abandoned him. But there is little Republicans can do to control Mr. Trump’s behavior: The party’s donors have no leverage over him, he is relying largely on small donors and, at 70, he is not mindful of any future campaign.
The emerging dynamic may be especially toxic for Republicans in swing states that are also home to competitive races for the House and Senate, where the party’s candidates must choose between two unpalatable options: alienating much of their party’s base, or standing behind a nominee who is unacceptable to most mainstream voters. The voting bloc that especially concerns Republican officials are the right-of-center, college-educated voters who usually favor Republican candidates but cannot abide Mr. Trump. These voters can make up anywhere between a quarter to a third of the party’s electoral coalition.
“That voter is clearly not going to vote for Donald Trump,” said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist who is working on several Senate races. “But if they don’t vote at all, it’s catastrophic for us.”
The nightmare possibility for the party is that swing voters punish the party because of Mr. Trump, the anti-Trump Republicans stay at home and Mr. Trump’s base casts a ballot for him and then leaves the polls. Under those conditions, Senate races in places like Pennsylvania and North Carolina could fall to Democrats, while Senate and House races in places like Missouri, Arizona and Kansas could move to the center of the battlefield.
Already, Republicans view Mr. Trump’s sharp downturn in the presidential race as having jeopardized their majorities in Congress. A poll published on Tuesday by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found Mr. Trump trailing Mrs. Clinton by nine percentage points nationally and drawing just 37 percent of the vote. No major-party nominee since World War II has received a smaller share of the vote. But in an illustration of the bind Republicans are in, the poll found that three-fourths of Republicans believed their candidates should stay loyal to Mr. Trump.
In Nevada, the Republican candidate for Senate, Representative Joe Heck, withdrew his support from Mr. Trump over the weekend, and is facing a furious backlash.
Sandie Kirwin, a Las Vegas retail manager supportive of Mr. Trump, said she might now vote for a Democrat over Mr. Heck in a critical Senate race.
“I think of Joe Heck the same I do of any Republican not supporting Donald Trump,” said Ms. Kirwin, 52. “I will never support any of them, and I will do what I can to get them out of office.”
But other Republican-leaning voters say they may punish those who fail to denounce Mr. Trump. Several Republicans in difficult Senate races have criticized Mr. Trump in strong terms without coming out in opposition to his candidacy, including Senators Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, Richard M. Burr of North Carolina and Mr. Rubio.
In Pennsylvania, Jaye Steuterman, a registered Republican and a real estate agent in Doylestown, said she was still undecided on which presidential candidate to vote for. She said she was deeply unsettled by Mr. Trump’s past comments about forcing himself on women, but that might not be enough to stop her voting for him.
“I don’t know what’s more important to me — that, or the fact that Hillary is a liar,” Ms. Steuterman said.
In the Senate race, she is inclined to vote for Mr. Toomey because he is a Republican, but her decision could depend on whether he supports Mr. Trump.
Even the drastic step of denouncing Mr. Trump may not be enough to shield Republicans from his unpopularity. In a conference call on Tuesday with the Democratic caucus, Representative Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that party polling found voters drawing scant distinction between Republicans who endorsed Mr. Trump and those who abandoned him out of political expediency, according to people who participated in the call, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it was supposed to be private.
On the same call, Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat, expressed concern that Mrs. Clinton might abandon states that she is all but sure to win, but where Democrats are still locked in competitive races. Mr. Clyburn asked Representative Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, to contact Mrs. Clinton’s campaign to ensure it would not withdraw resources from Virginia and Colorado.
“Most people think the House now could be in play,” said Representative John Yarmuth of Kentucky. “There’s a little bit of scrambling going on to identify races that could flip if the presidential race somehow gets to a 10-point margin.”
Like their Republican counterparts, Democrats do not plan to make final strategy decisions until they receive new polling. But they have already begun aggressively attacking Republicans, even as those officials retreat from Mr. Trump.
Three Democratic congressional candidates have started running ads this week that showcase footage of Mr. Trump describing sexual assault in graphic terms, from a 2005 recording. Gov. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, who is challenging Senator Kelly Ayotte, used the footage in a campaign video on Tuesday, saying Ms. Ayotte recently denounced Mr. Trump only to “protect herself.”
And outside groups supporting congressional Democrats have begun to reallocate their spending to take advantage of the shifting environment. The House Majority PAC, the principal outside group supporting House Democrats, this week made a $1.2 million reservation to contest the suburban Philadelphia seat held by Representative Michael G. Fitzpatrick, who is retiring.
In affluent, suburban areas, which were already trending strongly toward Democrats after the first presidential debate, Republican survival may depend on the willingness of voters to separate their feelings about the presidential race from their voting behavior in all other elections.
Outside a ski shop on Tuesday in Aurora, Colo., Sharon and Les Sparks said they were disappointed by Republicans pulling away from Mr. Trump, whom Mr. Sparks described as “spoiled little entitled brats.” Among those lawmakers is Representative Mike Coffman, a Denver-area congressman who has been critical of Mr. Trump for months and recently called on him to end his campaign.
Still, Mr. and Ms. Sparks said they would vote for Mr. Coffman, despite their frustration. “They need to unite,” said Ms. Sparks, 49, a project manager in the health industry. “If you’re going to be in the Republican Party, you need to start standing behind the party.”