How Many Republicans Will Trump Take Down With Him?

Donald Trump has divided the GOP. Democrats are hoping to use that as an opportunity to rebuild their ranks in state legislatures.
by | October 14, 2016
Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Florida. (AP/ Evan Vucci)

Want to read this regularly? Subscribe to The Week in Politics newsletter for free.

Donald Trump's faltering campaign and the open warfare it's triggered within his party are bound to hurt other Republican candidates. The question is, how much?

Democrats went into this election cycle optimistic about taking back some of the many legislative chambers they lost in 2010 and 2014. Trump's problems give them a real chance.

"We certainly think we'll take back these rented chambers," said Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), referring to the legislative bodies taken by Republicans in 2014 in Democratic-leaning states like Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire and Washington state.

The Republican Party has been deeply divided by the Trump candidacy and its never-ending set of controversies. Washington state GOP Chair Susan Hutchison, for example, came under considerable criticism within party circles this week for suggesting that when Trump made his remarks about grabbing women, "he was a Democrat at the time."

"The negativity around Trump has tarnished the Republican brand, and from my research on state legislative election outcomes, this is good news for state legislative Democrats," said Steven Rogers, a political scientist at St. Louis University.

Rogers noted that Trump has devoted limited resources to collecting voter data and opening up field offices, meaning there will be less of an effort from the top to turn out core party supporters. But the main thing Democrats have going for them, Rogers suggested, is that they have nowhere to go but up.

Republicans hold two-thirds of the nation's legislative chambers, with Democrats holding their lowest number of seats in a century.

As a result, this election "offers Democrats the most chances they've had to take back some control since 2010," as my colleague Louis Jacobson wrote in his latest state-by-state projections. Still, Jacobson predicts that Democrats will likely regain control of only enough chambers to narrow -- but not eliminate -- the GOP's historically large 68-30 majority in legislative chambers.

Republicans have long known they would have to play a lot of defense.

"We have always said it was an unpredictable year and environment and that Donald Trump at the top of the ticket had the potential to rearrange the map and opportunities at all levels of the ballot," said Ellie Hockenbury, communications director for the Republican State Leadership Committee. "That's exactly what we are seeing."

Hockenbury, however, argued that Republican legislative candidates are well-equipped to withstand a drag from the top of the ticket. She noted that the party controls 23 chambers in states that President Obama carried twice.

This year, the GOP hopes to win the Kentucky House -- the last chamber held by Democrats in the South -- and to erase the narrow majority held by Democrats in the Iowa Senate.

"We will continue to be successful this year regardless of who's at the top of the ticket, not because of it," said Hockenbury.

Democrats, unsurprisingly, don't see things that way.

Post, the DLCC official, said that Trump's unpopularity means that Democrats will not only win back a number of chambers in November but make serious inroads in states such as Florida and Pennsylvania.

"We didn't necessarily see states like Arizona and Michigan as being in play at the start of this cycle," she said. "But now we think we have a path to taking the Arizona Senate and the Michigan House."

Given the ways in which the electorate is divided, Trump's unpopularity won't translate into slam-dunk victories for legislative Democrats everywhere. He'll hurt his party among suburban voters, but Trump has maintained his support among white men, in particular, who lack a college degree.

"The difference between Nevada and a state like Colorado is that we have a much smaller share of college-educated voters," said David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Conversely, Nevada -- where Republicans took over both chambers in 2014 -- does have many Latinos, who have shown scant support for Trump. Still, "Hispanics are not in the competitive districts for the state legislature," said Damore.

One of the big question marks regarding the presidential race is how many citizens will be so turned off that they might not vote at all. If polls stay where they are now, Republicans who don't like Trump might not bother turning out, convinced that he can't win.

On the other hand, there's been a lot of media chatter this week that Trump loyalists, angered by the criticism from his own party, will vote for him and then leave the rest of their ballots blank.

That remains to be seen, but either scenario would hurt down-ballot GOP candidates.

"People are just less attached to their party this year," said Lakeville, Minn., Mayor Matt Little, a Democrat running for a seat in the state Senate. "There's so much disgust and apathy with the presidential election in my district."

That said, Little is convinced people will turn out to vote.

"People are going to go to the polls," he said. "There are a lot of write-in jokes."

In Indiana, as elsewhere, Republicans are having to do a dance between ameliorating the concerns of those offended by Trump, while not alienating his base supporters, said Laura Merrifield Albright, a political scientist at the University of Indianapolis.

"The most motivated and determined voters will likely skip the top of the ticket -- and even within the Republican establishment we have heard this sentiment -- but then vote for the remaining offices down ballot," she said.

Assuming Republican turnout remains high, the question remains whether those who abandon Trump will punish the rest of his party in significant numbers.

"Maine voters are very willing to vote for a legislative candidate they like and trust even if they vote for all the other people of the opposing party," said Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington. "I do not expect dislike of the presidential candidates to [translate into] votes against their party's down-ballot races."

Phil Bartlett, who chairs the Maine Democratic Party, acknowledges that voters in his state maintain their willingness to split their tickets even as that habit is dying out in much of the rest of the country.

Still, he argues that Mainers aren't happy with revelations about Trump not paying federal income taxes.

"Voters are horrified by Trump’s comments that glorify sexual violence," said Bartlett, "and we do believe those remarks will hurt Republicans down ballot."

Want to read this regularly? Subscribe to The Week in Politics newsletter for free.