When Donald Trump won the Republican primary, some GOP leaders were famously hesitant to support him. Large non-profit groups announced that they would focus on down-ballot races rather than the presidential contest. Trump has had a bad few weeks, propelling a campaign shakeup announced Wednesday. According to some, however, that rearrangement is likely to push the Republican Party even further away from the nominee.
A “top GOP strategist tells me Trump campaign shakeup will accelerate party move to shift resources toward House/Senate races, away from Trump,” CNBC reporter John Harwood announced on Twitter. In another tweet, Harwood further quoted a Senate Republican strategist who called Trump “so far off rails I don’t know anyone who could make a case for investing $ in the Presidential.”
top GOP strategist tells me Trump campaign shakeup will accelerate party move to shift resources toward House/Senate races, away from Trump
— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) August 17, 2016
The Trump campaign elevated two outsiders to key leadership positions. Executive chairman of Breitbart News Stephen K. Bannon will become the campaign’s chief executive and pollster Kellyanne Conway will serve as the campaign manager.
The shakeup signals Donald Trump’s unhappiness with the management of campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who served as acting campaign manager. The new leadership “effectively ended” Manafort’s push to “moderate Trump’s presentation and pitch for the general election,” according to the Washington Post‘s Robert Costa, Jose DelReal, and Jenna Johnson. The Post reporters argued that this “sent a signal, perhaps more clear than ever, that the real-estate mogul intends to finish this race on his own terms, with friends who share his instincts at his side.”
Trump’s attempt to get back to the “let Trump be Trump” style of the primary campaign strikes many as reckless, and might presage yet more of the kind of off-the-cuff moves and remarks that have tanked his poll numbers in recent weeks.
This week, the Post‘s Chris Cillizza warned that the GOP nominee’s already slim chance of winning in November has narrowed in the past few weeks. According to his model, Clinton already has 273 electoral votes in “safe” or “lean Democratic” states, meaning she wins the White House even if she loses all six of the states currently marked as “toss-ups.”
If current trends continue (always a dubious suggestion), Trump will lose the presidency, and there’s little the Republican Party apparatus can do to fix that. But the party might choose to emphasize U.S. House and Senate races, to try to mitigate the damage of a potential Clinton presidency. Some non-profit organizations have already embraced this strategy.
Is is possible to focus on “down-ballot” races without helping Trump?
Back in April, The Guardian‘s Peter Stone reported that conservative non-profits supported by billionaire philanthropists Charles and David Koch are focusing on U.S. Senate races, rather than getting involved in the presidential primaries. Organizations such as Americans for Prosperity (AFP), Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, and Concerned Veterans for America spent millions on ads for Senate races, and stayed out of the presidential contest.
AFP in particular aims to make a splash in November, but emphatically not for Trump. As NBC News’ Jane Timm reported, the organization “funneled $122 million into the 2012 race and told their donor network they’d spend even more in the 2016 contest. But now that Trump has the nomination, AFP plans to focus exclusively on down-ballot races.”
“For years, the left had a decisive advantage on the ground,” said AFP President Tim Phillips. “They had government employee unions, private sector unions, the environmental lobby. They had an army on the gorund and infrastructure they could use. We’re determined to build that infrastructure.”
Boasting over 500 staff members in the field nationwide, AFP claims to be the largest permanent grassroots force on the right, second only to the GOP, which slims down its grassroots presence in off years. This organization mimics the data-driven grassroots work and face-to-face advocacy that Barack Obama’s two campaigns became famous for. AFP activists are reportedly knocking on doors daily in 35 states and are expanding rapidly.
Trump’s campaign sorely needs such a “ground game,” and AFP could have helped fill that gap. Instead, their firepower is aimed directly at down-ballot races.
Some criticize such organizations — along with Charles and David Koch — for inadvertently helping Trump by driving turnout for down-ballot races. As the American Prospect’s Adele Stan argued, “they’re keen to turn out the voters needed to maintain Republican control of both houses of Congress. And there’s no way to turn out those voters without helping the quisling from Queens.”
Despite Stan’s negative rhetoric, she has a point. Unless the Republican Party fractures entirely, most Republican voters will still pull the level for Trump, and grassroots efforts to elect House and Senate Republicans will get more of those voters to the polls. But 2016 has already busted a great deal of conventional wisdom, and it’s quite possible for GOP voters to back the down-ballot candidates without supporting the presidential nominee.
If, come November, Republicans in House and Senate races are leading while Donald Trump flounders, that will be a sign that the GOP can survive without Trump. At the end of the day, that sign is one that a lot of Republicans are anxious to see.