How Trump and Cruz Are Ruining GOP Hopes of Keeping the Senate
Policy + Politics

How Trump and Cruz Are Ruining GOP Hopes of Keeping the Senate

© Carlo Allegri / Reuters

With the air of inevitability surrounding Donald Trump’s potential nomination dissipating somewhat, there might be some hope among Republicans that what looked like an unmitigated down-ballot disaster in November might not be so awful after all. But a new analysis from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and some recent polling suggest that Republicans shouldn’t get their hopes up just yet.

The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics on Thursday released new ratings for six Senate elections, all of which either favored an incumbent Democrat or predicted a more difficult path for an incumbent Republican.

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“Assuming the GOP nominee for the White House is either Trump or [Texas Sen.] 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),” write Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley.

Neither Trump nor Cruz is seen as particularly electable in a general election, and the so-called coattail effect produced by a Democratic presidential victory could wind up carrying new Dems into the Senate. In November, 34 Senate seats will be up for election, with Republicans defending 24 of them. A net gain of four seats would give Democrats control if there is a Democratic vice president. A five-seat swing would hand them control of the Senate outright.

“[I]n recent presidential cycles, about 80% of states with Senate elections have backed the same party for the presidency and the Senate,” they wrote. If a Democrat takes the White House in November, “straight-ticket voting could bode poorly for the GOP.”

The worst news in Thursday’s analysis was for Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rob Portman of Ohio. Both men saw their races downgraded from “Leans Republican” to “Toss-up” on the Center for Politics’ scale. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Richard Burr of North Carolina both saw their races downgraded from “Likely Republican” to “Leans Republican.”

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Even long-time Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley took a hit, dropping from “Safe Republican” to “Likely Republican.” (Grassley is likely suffering in part from reaction to his decision as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee to deny a vote to Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.)

The one Democratic senator whose rating changed was Michael Bennett of Colorado. His race moved from “Leans Democratic” to “Likely Democratic.”

Recent polling data out of Wisconsin, the most recent state to hold a Republican primary election, also suggests that even if Trump’s attempt to take the GOP mantle is thwarted, a Cruz candidacy might not exactly stir the hearts of GOP voters.

To be sure, Trump is the most toxic candidate in the field, even among Republicans. After the Wisconsin primaries on Tuesday, Republican voters were asked whom they would vote for in a general election under a variety of scenarios. If Trump were the Republican nominee and Hillary Clinton were the Democratic nominee, for example, only 61 percent of GOP voters said they would support him. Eight percent said they wouldn’t vote at all, 18 percent said they would seek a third-party candidate, and 10 percent said they would vote for Clinton over Trump.

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And while Cruz’s numbers aren’t as bad as Trump’s, they’re still pretty bad.

If Cruz won the nomination and ran against Clinton, only 66 percent of Republicans said they would support him. Only in a race against a candidate like Trump can the threat of losing one-third of your party’s support in a general election be considered a victory.

Five percent of Wisconsin Republicans said they wouldn’t vote in a general election if Cruz were the nominee, 18 percent said they would look for a third party candidate, and 6 percent would vote for Clinton.

Looking ahead to November, if the Wisconsin exit polls are even close to correctly gauging the attitude of the broader electorate, that’s terrible news not just for the Republicans’ dream of recapturing the White House, but for their defense of the Senate as well.