Everyone knows that swing-state Republican Senate candidates have a Donald Trump problem.
But Democrats also have a Hillary Clinton problem. Candidates in close races have offered tepid support for their party’s presidential nominee, potentially indicating they are feeling pressure on the ground that isn’t fully reflected in polling.
“I think what you’re seeing is that voters across the country see that Hillary Clinton is not honest and as a result of that, Democrats who associate with Hillary Clinton bring an inherent risk to their campaigns,” said Jeff Bechdel, communications director for America Rising Political Action Committee, a Republican opposition research group.
Bechdel pointed to the CNN interview with New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan that aired last week as an example of a U.S. Senate candidate who doesn’t want to be associated with the Democratic presidential nominee.
Hassan was asked three times by a reporter if she thought Clinton was honest or trustworthy, and each time she didn’t directly answer the question. Hassan later clarified and said she does think Clinton is trustworthy.
“Yes, as do military and national security experts in both parties,” Hassan told WMUR.
According to the latest NBC News/Survey Monkey online poll, only 11 percent of respondents found Clinton trustworthy compared to Trump’s 16 percent.
Of course, Hassan’s rival, incumbent Kelly Ayotte, has also had difficulty answering for Trump’s divisive rhetoric or controversial stances on policy. Ayotte supports Trump, but has made it clear that she does not endorse him.
Hassan’s CNN interview and Ayotte’s tightrope-walk on Trump have turned into political ammo for their respective campaigns.
While it’s been widely reported about Republican Senate candidates trying to distance themselves from Trump (like Ayotte and John McCain), there are some Democratic candidates who might not want to be associated with Clinton.
“There are a lot of reasons for folks to run away to create space between them and Hillary Clinton,” Bechdel said.
Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, McCain’s Democratic challenger, also received the “Clinton trustworthy” question by a CNN reporter earlier this month. Her response became fuel for the McCain camp.
“Oh, I support Hillary,” Kirkpatrick said. “I mean, I’ve taken a public stance on that, and I think she’s the most qualified to lead this country. Look, there’s a lot going on. She has the experience and the knowledge to be president of the United States.”
A number of swing state Democratic Senate candidates did not attend the Democratic National Convention in July. Kirkpatrick, former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) did not attend, with some of them citing previously scheduled campaign events.
Republicans jumped on this news, claiming the candidates were skipping the convention because they didn’t want to be associated with Clinton.
Tying Clinton and former Gov. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) together is expected to be the narrative that Republican Rob Portman will push as the general election draws near in the Buckeye State, said David Niven, political science professor at the University of Cincinnati.
“They [Republicans] will sell themselves as the insurance against a Clinton presidency,” he said. “The pitch in Ohio is that the candidate is running individually. This isn’t about Trump or Clinton or anyone else. It’s about their good service.”
But candidates distancing themselves from their respective presidential nominee is less prevalent on the Democratic side, Niven said.
“Hillary Clinton is not a candidate without liability and some distance from Senate Democratic candidates, but nothing rivals the political pretzel of Trump and the Senate Republicans,” he said.
Clinton currently leads Trump in virtually every national and swing state poll, but some pollsters warn about a possible “hidden Trump vote” that isn’t being counted in the phone interview polls because some people feel uncomfortable telling a live interviewer they support someone who many cite as racist and xenophobic. Additionally, Clinton remains deeply unpopular, even among many of her supporters. This leaves Senate candidates in her party in a difficult position, as they are expected to embrace a candidate whose support is lukewarm and may be overestimated in polling.
Niven said he’s not quite convinced there’s a “secret Trump voting bloc” that’s not being counted, but there is irony in this election cycle.
“The irony of the race is in which the second least popular presidential candidate is poised to win by running against the least popular presidential candidate in history,” he said. “All of this is in the most competitive race in the world and we get these two candidates. Who shows up to vote and feels good about their party on that day will be revealing.”
How this unique dynamic impacts Senate races will likely remain unclear until Election Day, but Democrats can hardly hope to survive on strictly the fact they are not in the same party as Donald Trump. Republicans have been making known their concerns with their party’s nominee for some time, but Democrats have faced far fewer questions from the media on their nominee’s own troubles. The latest interview in New Hampshire with Hassan shows the hurdles Democrats will face down ballot heading toward November.