Conservative pals on Twitter scoffed yesterday when Breitbart posted this clip from Ryan’s office claiming that it’s a “campaign ad.” But it is a campaign ad. It’s really obviously a campaign ad. Just not in the way you’re thinking.
What you’re seeing here, I think, is a test run of the strategy congressional Republicans will follow if Trump ends up as nominee. It’s a campaign ad, but the campaign in question isn’t the presidential race, it’s the down-ballot races in the House and Senate. If Trump’s polling this fall is anywhere near what it is right now, most GOPers in Congress won’t want anything to do with him. This is Ryan’s way of nudging them towards a different message — upbeat, disdainful of “divisiveness,” critical of identity politics, including, presumably, identity politics for white people. I wonder, in fact, if he won’t end up in demand by congressional Republicans this fall as a sort of “shadow nominee” when they’re looking around for prominent Republicans to campaign in their district. Ryan’s favorable rating is a few points underwater but that’s not bad for a Republican and almost impressive for a guy who leads the House at a moment when Congress is historically unpopular. (And of course, Ryan’s numbers will be higher in the red districts where he’ll be invited to campaign.) Marco Rubio, another GOPer with decent name recognition and respectable favorability among the wider electorate, will also be a hot commodity on the trail. Ted Cruz is a cinch to be asked to show up in redder districts even if he fails to block Trump from the nomination this spring. You may even see Mitt Romney out there, although he’ll have to pick his spots. In ways large and small, party leaders should and will be seeking to raise the profiles of all of these guys over the next few months so that they’re better able to fill the void when Republican candidates desert Trump. I think this spot is just Ryan’s first overture.
Will it do any good, though? These are some mighty strong headwinds they’re facing:
Considering the rise of Donald Trump, the polarization in U.S. politics, and a higher rate of straight-ticket voting, this could be bad news for the GOP. We have already sketched out a “Trumpmare” doomsday presidential scenario for the Republicans, who control the Senate now by a margin of 54 to 46. Assuming the GOP nominee for the White House is either Trump or Ted Cruz, we think the Democrats will fare reasonably well down-ballot (more so with Trump than Cruz, though Cruz will also have a difficult time carrying many swing states). As shown in Chart 1, in recent presidential cycles, about 80% of states with Senate elections have backed the same party for the presidency and the Senate. In light of the fact that Republicans control 24 of the 34 seats up in 2016, including many in states that President Obama won in 2008 and/or 2012, straight-ticket voting could bode poorly for the GOP.
As we explain below, the Crystal Ball is changing six Senate race ratings, all in a Democratic direction. This does not mean Democrats will actually win all six, though one was already leaning toward the Democrats. As for the other five, two races are now designated pure Toss-ups, and the three other states where we are making a change still favor Republicans, though less so than earlier. There is a clear if premature trend here.
Cruz himself is sufficiently unpopular that you might see Ryan, Rubio et al. out there this fall day to day if he’s the nominee too. Three big differences between Cruz and Trump, though. Cruz simply isn’t as unpopular as Trump is; he’s at least competitive with Hillary in head-to-head polling thanks to her own unpopularity. Cruz will run as a conservative, which will leave less of a messaging void for congressional Republicans. They might put some distance between themselves and Cruz on particular issues but their programs will be broadly the same. And Cruz isn’t remotely the media dynamo that Trump is, which will make it easier for down-ballot Republicans to inch away from him as necessary. It’s easy to imagine Paul Ryan showing up in a swing district to hold a rally for the local GOP House candidate and having that speech completely drowned out by a media frenzy because Trump just retweeted something about Hillary having “cankles” or whatever. There’s really no escaping Trump as nominee if you’re a Republican incumbent. He’ll be everywhere in media, 24/7. Ryan can and will try his best, but he’s looking at a shrunken majority even in a best-case scenario.