It’s common for incumbents to run away from an unpopular President or national nominee if the candidate is unpopular or floundering. Except Republicans pondering whether they should do this with Trump might want to take special concern to his warning 2018 could be a “bloodbath” if they do not pass healthcare reform. This may sound like hyperbole, but the tale of Martha Roby offers a cautionary tale.
Just a year ago, Roby was a shooting star in Alabama politics. Elected at the tender age of 34 in 2010, the former Montgomery City Councilwoman was viewed as a candidate for Senate or Governor in the near future. In 2014, she won reelection with 67 percent of the vote and she cruised in her primary last year with 66 percent.
All that changed when the Hollywood Access video came out. Roby in no uncertain terms denounced Trump and withdrew her endorsement. She vowed to write in Mike Pence for President.
Roby should have thought more about her decision. Merely a week after her announcement she was uninvited from speaking in front of the Pike County Republican Women. Worse, Trump loyalists in Alabama drafted a last minute write-in to challenge her from the right. While Trump carried the 2nd District with 65 percent, Roby won reelection with a meager 49 percent while 11 percent went to her conservative write-in challenger.
As the debate heats up over the ACHA, tax reform and other thorny issues the above suggests there could be more harm than benefit to opposing Trump, and the penalty could be felt in general elections and not just primaries.
Admittedly, there were plenty of Republicans who challenged Trump and won election, David Valadao (CA-21), Carlos Curbelo (FL-26), Charlie Dent (PA-15), all cast off Trump at the outset and won relatively easily. Still, these candidates had deep track record in their districts and made an effort to localize their races.
However, abandoning Trump mid-campaign did not really benefit many Republicans last year. That should be a warning for Republicans in the near future. To reach this conclusion I looked at data assembled by David Wasserman of Fivethirtyeight.com. Wasserman looked at Senate elections in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New Hampshire and North Carolina (you could probably also use Florida and Nevada as good data points).
Every incumbent took a different route to victory dependent on their states. Both Kelly Ayotte and Mark Kirk ran as moderates in their respective states. More importantly, they very publicly rebuked Trump. Kirk did it in June after Trump attacked a judge of Mexican ancestry while Ayotte did it in October after the Access Hollywood tapes release.
On the other hand, Senators Ron Johnson (WI) and Richard Burr (NC) embraced Trump. Burr refused to walk away from Trump even when polls showed he was losing the GOP leaning state. Senator Pat Toomey, recognizing how toxic Trump was in the suburbs, refused to say how he would vote on Trump (he eventually did).
Kirk had the toughest road to hoe in a deep blue state in a Presidential year. Ayotte had to be hoping her unendorsement of Trump would win her Clinton voters. In the end both gambles were wrong. Neither ran appreciably ahead of Trump and both lost (Ayotte very narrowly).
Both Kirk and Ayotte made political gambles about where they could garner votes. In the end, Kirk ran slightly ahead of Trump in the Collar Counties, but he ran well behind Trump downstate. Ayotte did better than Trump in Manchester County but in the blue-collar swing towns in East and Northern New Hampshire she ran behind Trump by big margins.
However, Johnson and Burr fared better. Not only did they run better in urban Milwaukee and Charlotte than Trump, but they held almost all the Trump voters in heavily red parts of their states. In Wisconsin for example, Johnson’s and Trump’s margins in the Iron Range were virtually identical. Ultimately, Johnson carried Wisconsin by three points and Trump by a point. Trump won North Carolina by four points while Burr won by six.
Toomey’s path was arguably the most unique. By refusing to take a stance on Trump (a huge risk) he managed to stay fairly popular in the GOP leaning North Philly Suburbs while losing few voters in the rest of the state. For example, Toomey won Chester and Bucks County (Trump lost both) while Toomey did not lose a single county in the rest of the state Trump won. Trump won the state by a single point, Toomey by two.
The results suggest that Ayotte probably hurt herself dumping Trump. If she had kept Trump voters in her camp and deflected questions about him she might still be Senator today.
The same could be said of Joe Heck. The popular Vegas Congressman led in most polls until October when he decided to say he would not support Trump for President. He did not lead in a single poll after. In the end Trump and Heck lost the state by identical margins. For Heck, who had been expected to outrun the top the ticket, it was a major disappointment. This is not even mentioning Alaska, where Trump won with 51 percent and Lisa Murkowski an underwhelming 44 percent (she also vowed to not support Trump).
It will be tempting for Republicans in swing districts, the 23 Republicans in Clinton districts and for Dean Heller in Nevada to ditch Trump and his priorities. The problem is that low turnout midterms can hinge on an excited base as much as winning the persuadable middle (of which there is not much of one).
Republicans, running even in Clinton districts, will need Trump supporters as much as persuadable Democrats and Independents. There is no evidence to suggest these Trump voters, not traditional Republicans by any stretch, will feel a need to stick up for Congressional Republicans that thumbed their noses at their guy.
Keep in mind Trump railed against a GOP Congress during the president primary and he could do so again easily to insulate himself from a failed first two years. As a result, many Congressional Republicans could be primaried and not just lose in the general election.
This is likely the dynamic playing out over the AHCA. Trump ran very strongly in many, many Freedom Caucus districts and their members are far to the right of Trump on government. But, Trump did better than many of them so are they really willing to buck Trump on healthcare and potentially others? Their decision might cost them their jobs.