Republicans were doomed to lose the Presidency just two years after regaining Congress. Their nominee, trailing badly in the polls, was floundering in traditionally red and swing territory.
To counter the drag down-ballot, House and Senate Republicans began talking up being a check on a Democratic President. They distanced themselves from their nominee while congressional arms threw all their money into these contests. Now, despite its many similarities, I’m not talking of 2016. I’m talking of 1996.
Merely two years’ prior the GOP was coming off a wave. They’d regained the House for the first time in forty years and had added to their Senate numbers. They were confident the White House could be theirs in two years.
But, like this year, the GOP settled on a weak nominee and Democrats played on racial and cultural themes to build a winning coalition.
By mid-September, the GOP nominee was lagging badly and after a lengthy debate the party abandoned him. They circulated memos to Senators and Representatives to play up their independence and argue they would be a check on Bill Clinton.
This cycle, it must be acknowledged there are some differences. First-off, it’s mid-September and Trump is not nearly as far behind as Dole. Secondly, unlike Dole, he has the majority of the South behind him.
Republicans have a historic majority to play with this cycle (more seats than 94) and Trump plays well in some unusual places. Their majority in the House is not in jeopardy.
But, the Senate map looks daunting. Republicans are defending 24 seats to the Democrat’s 10. Additionally, many sit in blue or purple states.
Until recently, Trump looked like Dole. He trailed by big margins nationally and in swing states with key Senate races. But he has raced back into a tie with Clinton in many of these states boosting Senate Republicans.
Many GOP Senators were running ahead of Trump but the question was by how much? In PA and NH, Pat Toomey and Kelly Ayotte were running ahead of Trump but trailing.
But, in the last month, as Trump has surged so have Senate Republicans. They’ve done it differently than Trump. Whereas Trump has hammered away at Clinton’s trustworthiness and run a decent campaign in the last month (by his standards), Senate Republicans have localized their races and hammered away at the idea of a Democratic Senate and President.
In Ohio, Rob Portman has a significant lead over former Governor Ted Strickland. He’s built it on hammering Strickland for liberal positions and fully supporting Clinton.
In Florida, Senator Marco Rubio has hit Clinton for her support of lifting the embargo on Cuba and tied his opponent to her. Until recently, those two states were the lone bright spots for the GOP. Until now.
In 1996, Republicans like Susan Collins in Maine and Gordon Brown in Oregon did the same by playing up their local roots and commitment to bipartisanship and halting a liberal agenda. Until September of that year, both had been written off.
A spate of new polls has shown the GOP in a strong position to maintain their majority this cycle. In Indiana, a local poll has Evan Bayh tied with a lesser known Republican opponent. The highly respected Marquette University has found the state a dead heat after the state was recently thought out of reach.
Perhaps the best news for the party is a new WSJ/NBC survey that found Republicans well ahead in AZ, GA, NH and OH. Quinnipiac found Republicans well ahead in NC, OH, FL and narrowly in PA of all places. Until recently, many of these GOP states looked in danger or out of reach. Even better, the Clinton camp seems unlikely to invest in contests outside of PA, OH, FL and NC, boosting party chances of holding the Senate.
Whether the tide has truly turned or not is still an open question. But as Republicans did in 96, their candidates played up their strengths and appealed to voters’ discomfort with one-party rule. By doing the same this cycle, Republicans can preserve their Senate majority, Trump win or no.