Polls have shown Donald Trump may be dragging down Republican Senate candidates in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. However, in the crucial swing states of Ohio and Florida, despite Trump trailing in almost every poll, Senators Rob Portman and Marco Rubio have consistent leads over their Democratic rivals.
Democrats had high hopes for both of these contests. In Ohio, the party was excited to recruit former Congressman and one-term Governor Ted Strickland. Particularly because it was believed he still had appeal in rapidly reddening coal country. He doesn’t.
Florida was slightly different. Senator Marco Rubio initially vacated his Senate seat to run for President and a jumbled field of Republicans meant no replacement broke through. After Rubio lost his state’s Presidential Primary on March 15th and dropped out of the presidential contest, the party attempted to recruit him to run for his Senate seat. In June, he acquiesced and easily won his party’s primary on Tuesday.
What is remarkable about both Portman and Rubio is contrary to their party’s internal debate about dumping Trump they have endorsed their Presidential nominee. Rubio spoke via a pre-recorded message at the Convention in July. Portman endorsed Trump soon after the Indiana Primary when Trump became the presumptive nominee.
Notably, Senator Kelly Ayotte (NH) has endorsed Trump but not found similar success. Recent polls have shown her trailing Democrat Maggie Hassan by varying margins. Even in Pennsylvania, where Pat Toomey has refused to endorse Trump, he narrowly trails his opponent.
So what have Rubio and Portman done differently that has allowed them to find success. Well, first-off, they have successfully localized their races. Portman has campaigned heavily on his support for funding to battle the opioid epidemic in suburban and rural Ohio. He has also touted his support for all forms of energy (including coal). This, in turn, has eaten into Strickland’s support in eastern Ohio (his former Congressional stomping grounds). Rubio, against the wishes of the Conservative base, has been very vocal in his support for Zika funding. His presidential run and statewide office have given him a platform to hit the issue in such a way that has drowned out his Democratic rival’s support for a similar plan.
Secondly, Portman and Rubio have defined their opponents. In Ohio, Portman’s massive war chest has allowed him to air millions in attack ads on Strickland’s tenure as Governor. Additionally, he has hired dozens of staff that have cultivated grassroots support. Strickland, until just last week, had not aired a single ad in response.
Rubio has had the fortune of watching his Democratic rival inflict damage on himself. Congressman Patrick Murphy, hailed as an up and coming Democratic star, has yet to recover from a story about embellishing his business record. Additionally, it has become clear his dad funded a large part of his 2012 Congressional campaign and bought favors from Democratic leadership. But, Rubio has not been content to watch Murphy hurt himself. He has cultivated deep connections with the Cuban-American community and at the same time maintained his appeal to White pro-Trump voters in the heavily GOP dominated panhandle and Jacksonville suburbs.
Lastly, neither Senator has allowed the campaign to linger on their support for Trump. Neither talks about it and instead talk about a litany of other issues. Whereas Toomey waffles on whether to endorse Trump (leaving the media to continually hit the issue) and Ayotte waffles on her continued support for the party’s nominee, Rubio and Portman have endorsed and moved on.
A similar dynamic is playing out in Nevada where Congressman Joe Heck has endorsed Trump but does not discuss the nominee. Heck is running neck and neck against a Democratic Latina nominee in a blue leaning state. That is saying something.
Republicans running statewide could learn a thing or 2 from the trio. Endorsing Trump is not a political death knell, especially since the nominee has become more on-message. But not endorsing or endorsing and then waffling could be. The message is clear. Endorse or don’t endorse and move on. Campaign on local and state issues that matter to your constituents and you might find the GOP Senate Majority is still around next year.