In the last few weeks, the national polls have been coming up roses for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. But while their faith that Donald Trump’s historic unfavorability ratings may make up for the public’s disdain for and lack of trust in Clinton, the chances of them taking back the Senate have gone down in recent days. If as Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball website predicts, control of the Senate in 2017 will rest on five tossups, two of them — Florida and Pennsylvania — might be about to be taken off the board by the GOP. The lesson to be taken away from this turn of events is that the key to Republican victory is to take Trump out of the equation as much as possible.
The big story today in the battle for Congress is Marco Rubio’s decision to reverse course and run for re-election. As I noted on Sunday, the concerted effort to pressure Rubio into going back on his pledge to leave the Senate after his presidential campaign failed was a result of the panic that Trump has induced among Republicans. Since none of the Republicans running for the seat had gained any traction, the incumbent was seen as the party’s best hope. If, as expected, Rep. Patrick Murphy wins the Democratic nomination over Representative Alan Grayson, Rubio will have a tough competitor. But a new Quinnipiac poll shows just how much of a difference Rubio makes in the race.
Without lifting a finger yet, Rubio already has a decisive 47-40 lead over Murphy. He’s also beating Grayson 48-40 in a state that has trended blue in presidential election years. Considering that Rubio spent the first few months of this year being the subject of an almost unprecedented barrage of negative advertising from former friend Jeb Bush and abuse from Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, Rubio’s position may be far stronger than even the polling says.
The news from Pennsylvania is equally interesting. Democrats have been waiting six years for another shot at Pat Toomey since they think the conservative senator managed a narrow win over a weak Democratic opponent only because of the GOP’s Tea Party 2010 midterm landslide. But Toomey has performed strongly in the Senate and has led all likely opponents in every poll taken. The state is still ranked a tossup because of the Democrats’ large edge in registration and the likelihood of a huge turnout by liberal voters in a presidential year. With the Democrats nominating their strongest candidate in Katie McGinty, the expectation was that Toomey might be in trouble. But the Quinnipiac swing state poll in Pennsylvania shows that Toomey remains in control of the race with a decisive 49-40 lead.
Both Rubio and Toomey are running far ahead of Trump. Quinnipiac shows the billionaire is doing better than expected in Pennsylvania where he trails Clinton by only a point. But he’s eight points behind her in Florida. Toomey and Rubio have also been far from enthusiastic about Trump, though both have at various times indicated that they feel obligated to back their party’s nominee formally. The fact that Rubio denounced Trump while he was announcing his candidacy shows that he knows the only way he can hold his lead is to put as much daylight as possible between himself and the reality star. Toomey has been speaking the same way lately. The message here is clear: Republicans in battleground states must stay as far away as they can from the toxic pull of Trump.
Only three other Senate contests are in doubt. GOP incumbents Ron Johnson (Wisconsin) and Mark Kirk (Illinois) might have lost anyway but with Trump at the head of the ticket, they have little chance. That means the two key seats to defend for the Republicans are the ones held by Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and Rob Portman in Ohio. Meanwhile, they still have at least an even chance of taking one from the Democrats in Nevada, where Minority Leader Harry Reid is retiring.
Rubio and Toomey’s strength in battleground states is a reminder that the Republican Party still exists and can continue to thrive if it isn’t crashed by a presidential standard-bearer running an amateurish underfunded campaign. That’s more food for thought for GOP convention delegates who need to ponder whether they are really willing to nominate Trump even though their party would be better off without him.