WASHINGTON (AP/WXMI) — Democrats are throwing millions of dollars into TV ads tethering House Republican candidates to Donald Trump. They say the strategy is buoying their quest for big gains in the chamber in this November's elections.
Republicans discount the impact their presidential nominee will have on House races, saying voters distinguish between Trump's unconventional candidacy and local, familiar congressional hopefuls. And they're firing back with ads tying Democratic House candidates to Hillary Clinton in Maine, Michigan and elsewhere.
There's no doubt that Trump's incendiary criticisms of women, Hispanics and others have raised Democrats' prospects for gains, especially in suburban districts and those with well-educated or minority voters. Their hopes rose further following Trump's lamentable week in which he performed poorly in a debate against Clinton, repeatedly mocked former Miss Universe Alicia Machado for gaining weight and dealt with the fallout from The New York Times report that he declared enough business losses in 1995 to potentially avoid paying federal taxes for 18 years.
The big question is whether Trump can give Democrats enough ammunition for an unlikely gain of 30 House seats, enough for majority control. They say Trump helps them across the nation, but concede that his usefulness to their congressional candidates has limits.
At the state level, GOP leaders appear to be cautiously distancing themselves from their nominee. Ronna Romney McDaniel, chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, condemned Trump's comments on women in a statement released last weekend, but for the first time she also appeared to try to separate down-ballot Republican candidates from the nominee.
“I am confident that Michiganders know that Donald Trump’s comments represent only himself, and other Republicans do not share his views,” McDaniel said. “Donald Trump's comments are his alone to own and I cannot and will not defend them.”
Gleaves Whitney, political historian and director of Grand Valley State University's Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, says there are a few different scenarios that will likely play out among GOP voters.
“Republicans are going to have some really difficult choices," Whitney said. “They’re going to have to decide, are they going to vote for [Trump] and skip everybody down ticket or are they going to skip him, maybe write in Mike Pence, and proceed down ticket."
A third option is that Republican voters feel so discouraged by their nominee, they don't show up to vote at all, putting down ballot races at risk. That appears to be the scenario most feared by several campaign officials in the state.
Since news of Trump's lewd comments against women surfaced last weekend, at least three members of Michigan's GOP congressional delegation—Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade, Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph—have condemned the remarks.
Amash and Upton both went to far as to double down on prior decision to not endorse Trump from the start of the campaign. Huizenga has remained vague about his support, not going out of his way to openly denounce or endorse the GOP nominee.
Whether putting distance between themselves and their nominee is enough to turn off Trump supporters from voting for other Republicans remains to be seen.
“If a lot of Republicans feel discouraged on Nov. 8 and are reluctant to go out and vote, then I think some of the down-ballot impact could be significant in those close races," Whitney said.
Michigan Democrats are making the most of the Republican discontent by pumping out audio recordings of several different state GOP lawmakers and candidates endorsing Trump.
The recordings were released the same day Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan told lawmakers he won't defend Trump or campaign with him, instead choosing to focus on protecting the Republicans' House majority. When asked about voting for Trump, Ryan has only said he isn't withdrawing his support for the presidential candidate or conceding the presidential election.
“He’s got to walk this very delicate line to make sure he retains this Republican majority in the House, but also not do too much to discourage Republicans from coming who say they won’t vote for Trump," Whitney said.
From this election cycle's start in January 2015 through last Wednesday, Democrats and their allies spent nearly $7 million on almost 10,000 broadcast TV spots using Trump in 22 House districts, according to Kantar Media's political ad tracker.
Republicans and their supporters spent more than $4.5 million mentioning Clinton in ads that ran almost 10,500 times, also in 22 districts, Kantar Media figures show. The figures include primaries.
Among Democrats, the DCCC alone aired nearly 4,000 spots costing around $2.3 million — more money and spots tying House Republicans to Trump than any other Democratic group, ally or candidate. It has run ads featuring Trump in districts including the Philadelphia and Las Vegas suburbs, western Texas and around San Diego, where the party is seeking to oust veteran GOP Rep. Darrell Issa.
The House Majority PAC, which helps House Democrats, has spent nearly $400,000 on 1,300 ads for House races that mention Trump, including along California's central coast and near Tampa, Florida.
But like the DCCC, the Majority PAC is tailoring ads to issues they consider most effective. It released new spots Tuesday in Florida, Michigan, Maine, Minnesota and Nebraska that didn't feature Trump but focused instead on Social Security and attacks on GOP candidates' backgrounds and past statements.
"You can't just say, 'Well, Donald Trump is on the ballot, we're going to win everything and all we have to do is scream about Donald Trump,'" said Alixandria Lapp, executive director of the House Majority PAC.
Historically, the victor of a presidential election in which no incumbent is running has finite coattails. In the six races since World War II in which no sitting president sought re-election, the party winning the White House also gained House seats just three times, and never more than 22 seats.
Republicans say Democrats are overrating the damage Trump could do to GOP House candidates.
GOP pollster Jon McHenry says Trump has "cultivated his own brand" that voters don't automatically link to congressional GOP candidates, especially incumbents who can highlight work on local problems.
They also note that thanks to redistricting and Democrats' concentrations in cities and coastlines, only a few dozen of the chamber's 435 seats are competitive, Trump or not. Republicans have a 247-188 majority, including vacancies in one GOP and two Democratic seats.
"I hope they keep this strategy going. I hope they keep wasting their money," said Mike Shields, president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, which backs House Republicans.
Republicans say Trump's limited down-ballot damage is illustrated by GOP candidates who remain competitive in Republican districts that President Barack Obama carried twice in South Florida, the Chicago suburbs and around Denver.
Taking no chances, Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., ran a spot saying of Trump, "Honestly, I don't care for him much, and I certainly don't trust Hillary."
Republicans also cite the Democratic effort to defeat Paulsen, who remains strong in his Minnesota district in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul suburbs. Democrats have spent around $1.1 million on ads linking Trump to the four-term congressman, more than in any other House race, according to Kantar Media.
While the DCCC says Paulsen remains vulnerable, the House Majority PAC recently canceled around $600,000 worth of ad time it had reserved there.
Playing offense, House Republican candidates and their allies have run spots featuring Clinton in states including Maine, Michigan and Arizona. Democrats say that will have little impact because Clinton is doing well in most suburban districts they hope to capture.
FOX 17s Josh Sidorowicz contributed to this report