Media outlets have published multiple stories in recent days about the panic within the Republican Party establishment over Donald Trump. But a confidential memo from September obtained by The Washington Post and published Wednesday afternoon makes it clear that Party insiders have been worrying – and strategizing – about the billionaire former reality television star for months.
While a lot of attention has been paid to ostensible efforts to “take down” Trump, who has led in the polls since almost the moment he announced last summer, the memo, written by National Republican Senatorial Committee director Ward Baker has a slightly different aim. The object is to help candidates find a way to win their own elections, even in the event Trump is at the head of the Republican ticket.
He begins by explaining that, even if it seems unlikely that Trump will win the nomination, it can’t be ruled out. “Not since liberal Republican businessman Wendell Willkie won the GOP nomination in 1940, had another dark horse candidate stood as its nominee for President. And, Willkie and Trump have a lot in common. Both were seen as fresh-faced outsiders. Each had the backing or received the promotion of major news media outlets, and both were outside of the established political order.”
The memo deals with the difficult choices that individual candidates would have to face in a race in which Trump became the face of the GOP: How to respond to outrageous statements, how to prove that the candidate is a “doer” when the presidential nominee is running against ineffective politicians, etc.
But near the end of the memo, Baker gets to the heart of why Trump so frightens the GOP. Republican candidates struggle in presidential years, because Democratic turnout is typically much higher then than it is in off-year elections. An election year in which Republican candidates are forced to constantly disavow the statements of their own party’s nominee could make some in the party less likely to turn out and vote.
“We can’t afford to depress the GOP vote,” he writes. “Spending full time attacking our own nominee will ensure that the GOP vote is depressed. That will only serve to topple GOP candidates at every level. Maintain the right amount of independence, but avoid piling on the nominee.”
“Conventional wisdom has counted Trump out on several occasions,” he continued. “But, Trump continues to rise and the criticisms seem to make him stronger. Trump has been gaining Democrat adherents and he’s solidifying GOP cohorts who feel they’ve been totally ignored by the Washington Ruling Class. If the environment aligns properly, Trump could win. It’s not a bet most would place now, but it could happen. That’s why it’s important for our candidates to run their own races, limit the Trump criticisms (other than obvious free kicks), and grab onto the best elements of the anti-Washington populist agenda.
The NRSC is particularly focused on the 2016 race, because control of the Senate could easily shift into Democratic hands if Republicans don’t successfully defend the large majority of their seats. But it’s becoming clear that the danger could extend far beyond Capitol Hill.
If he were to have the dual effect of driving down GOP turnout and energizing Democratic voters, Trump could drive a turnout that sends shockwaves through the major advantage the GOP has crafted in statehouses and governors’ mansions across the country. It’s that possibility that has the Party plotting out damage control strategies already.