Should Donald Trump garner the Republican nomination, his presence on the ticket could have deleterious effects on Republicans running for office in closely contested races. Democrats would be in political paradise tethering their Republican opponents to Trump. In affect, Trump would likely be an albatross on Republicans nationwide.
There is precedent for an insurrectionist like Trump winning the nomination, forcing vulnerable down-ballot candidates to employ a strategy to distance themselves from the nominee.
While Trump's bombastic rhetoric plays well in the most conservative parts of the country, most contested races are in the more moderate states and Congressional Districts. Senators from states carried by Democrat Barack Obama in 2012, like Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, will be constantly asked if they support their party's nominee. Furthermore, there are 26 Republicans who serve in districts Obama won in 2012. They will be prime targets for the Democrats to tie to Trump.
In addition, some Democrats, while excoriating Trump and his rhetoric, might weave into their campaigns his economic nationalism opposing most U.S. brokered trade deals, including the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Transpacific Partnership. Trump's populist message on international trade fits in more with contemporary Democratic belief than with Republicans. The trade deals are particularly unpopular with blue-collar workers afraid of losing their jobs overseas. The Democrat might be able to actually win some Trump voters by styling their opponents, who likely will support the liberalization of trade laws, as a tribunes of the corporate elites.
With Trump at the top of the ticket, vulnerable Republicans have three options. The most risky and least likely would be to actually embrace Trump, hoping that this will be a watershed election in which disaffected conservatives will come out in droves to support Trump and vote the Republican ticket. This would have to be concomitant with a complete implosion of the Democratic nominee.
Under the second option the endangered Republicans could declare unequivocally that they will not support Trump. They might even endorse the Democratic nominee. This strategy risks the ire of Republican benefactors refusing to donate to their respective campaigns. It also risks losing the conservative voters, who might vote for Trump for President, while leaving the down-ballot race blank as a protest, or vote for a conservative Independent or Third Party opponent. However, it will liberate these Republican candidates from having to hedge when asked if they support Trump.
The third option, which will most likely be employed by a litany of Republicans, is that they will try to ignore Trump. When asked if they support him, the candidate will not mention his name, but robotically aver: "I support my party's nominee." A clever candidate would then send a dog whistle message to moderate voters by saying that they are not running for President and are tired of the partisan vituperation that is permeating American politics. The candidate will then say that they are ready to work with whoever is elected President. With that response, the candidate is signaling that he/she is under duress to say that he/she supports the party nominee, even though this is not the case.
There have been two elections where an insurrectionist like Trump wrested the nomination from the party establishment. In both cases, the nominee was wildly unpopular with the general electorate, rousing uproarious support almost exclusively with their base, while alienating otherwise persuadable moderate voters. Both candidates lost their elections by a landslide.
In 1964, with the support of disenchanted grassroots conservative activists, U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) wrested the nomination from the moderate Republican establishment. Goldwater's rhetoric, like Trump's, was not temporized. When discussing the precision of nuclear missiles, Goldwater quipped: "I don't want to hit the moon. I want to lob one into the men's room of the Kremlin and make sure I hit it." This remark became fodder for Democrats to suggest that Goldwater was trigger-happy and not a rational thinker. The capstone of Goldwater's grandiloquent oratory came before a national audience when Goldwater horrified vulnerable down-ballot Republicans by declaring in his nomination acceptance speech: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
At the time, unlike today, the party was ideologically heterogeneous, including a conservative, moderate, and liberal bloodline. The conservatives mostly represented states and Congressional Districts where Goldwater's message struck a resonate chord. However, in the rest of the nation, Goldwater's blistering rhetoric petrified many voters.
That year, Michigan Governor George Romney, who was seen as a rising star and future GOP Presidential nominee, was in the fight of his political life, trying to win re-election in a state where Goldwater was widely feared. Romney stated that while he "accepted" the nomination, he would not "endorse" Goldwater. Romney was indignant at the Michigan Republican Party for producing a flyer with Goldwater and Romney together. Romney supporters mailed out about 200,000 mock ballots showing voters how to mark their ballots for Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson for President and Romney for Governor. Romney was able to convince enough voters to split their tickets. While Johnson won the state with a resounding 66.70% of the vote, Romney was comfortably elected with 55.9% of the vote
That year, Charles H. Percy, the candidate for Governor of Illinois, where Goldwater was also exceedingly unpopular, when asked if he supported Goldwater would answer tepidly in the affirmative and then point out: "Please remember that I'm running on my own." However, Percy's refusal to disavow Goldwater became the flagship issue of the campaign. The St. Louis Post Dispatch, which reaches voters in Illinois, endorsed Percy's Democratic opponent, Governor Otto Kerner. The publication admonished Illinoisans not to turn the Governorship "to a Republican Party so completely dominated by the Goldwater forces that Charles H. Percy dares not challenge them." Both Percy and Goldwater lost in Illinois that year.
Eight years later, in 1972, the Democratic establishment was rattled when the insurrectionist candidacy of U.S. Senator George McGovern (D-SD) toppled the establishment candidates, winning the nomination. McGovern, who was a steadfast opponent of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, rode a tsunami of anti-war sentiment with the support of many first-time voters.
While his establishment opponents supported McGovern, many blue collar Democrats would not support their party's nominee. They could not countenance McGovern's proposal to truncate the U.S. military budget by $31 billion a year or to give every American a $1000 income supplement. In addition, McGovern accrued the unfortunate alliterative moniker as the candidate of "acid, amnesty, and abortion" which stuck to him. McGovern was castigated for suggesting that he would "crawl on my hands and knees to get the POWs back" (from Vietnam).
That year, many Democratic politicians were given carte blanche from the party elite to either not endorse McGovern or to support Republican President Richard M. Nixon. The Teamsters Union, which normally endorsed Democrats, supported Nixon. In addition, many Democrats defected to Nixon and joined the group: "Democrats for Nixon." Former President Lyndon B. Johnson offered a tepid endorsement of McGovern but would not campaign with him. He told former aide Bobby Baker: "George McGovern? Why, he couldn't carry Texas even if they caught Dick Nixon fu*** ng a Fort Worth sow."
However, many Republican Congressional candidates were feckless in their attempts to tie their Democratic opponents to McGovern. While McGovern lost 49 states, many voters split their tickets supporting Democrats in down-ballot races. The Democrats actually picked up two seats in the U.S Senate.
At present, no incumbent Governor or member of the U.S. Congress has endorsed Donald Trump. Democrats are most likely salivating at the prospect of tying down-ballot Republican nominees to him. Republicans fear seeing advertisements with their images transposed alongside Trump. Republicans would be wise to take a crash course in political tightrope waking in order to differentiate themselves from Trump, while not alienating his supporters.