Can Republicans Save the Senate?

October 20, 2016

Absent any knockout blow during Wednesday night’s presidential debate, the final 19 days of campaigning still matter. What happens between now and Nov. 8 can materially affect which party controls not only the White House but also Congress.

Donald Trump is significantly behind, largely because of his own mistakes. He trails Hillary Clinton by 6.5 points, 48.6% to 42.1% in the latest Real Clear Politics average of polls. In the campaign’s final days, he must show far more discipline and focus than he demonstrated following the first two debates.

Hillary Clinton is widely seen as having outfoxed and baited him in their first encounter, on Sept. 26. Mr. Trump responded by haranguing a former Miss Universe for six days. Dumb.

The Republican nominee substantially improved his performance in the Oct. 9 debate—but then spent the next week declaring war on fellow Republicans and claiming that the election is rigged against him. Another dumb move.

While he was wandering off message, Mr. Trump paid scant attention to breaking news. Instead of seizing on events that would strengthen his narrative of change, he pursued themes that excite only his most ardent existing supporters.

Take two days last week. On Tuesday, Oct. 11, news broke that Mrs. Clinton’s campaign had communicated with Justice Department officials about a court hearing on her email server—while the FBI was still investigating. But Mr. Trump’s focus that day was attacking Speaker Paul Ryan as “very weak and ineffective” and then tweeting, “It is so nice that the shackles have been taken off me and I can now fight for America the way I want to.”

On Wednesday, Oct. 12, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, told the truth about ObamaCare. Premiums for 250,000 Minnesotans covered under the plan will rise by 50% next year. “The Affordable Care Act,” Gov. Dayton said, “is no longer affordable.” This was political manna. Mr. Trump could have bundled it with President Bill Clinton’s statement a week earlier that ObamaCare is “the craziest thing in the world.” Instead he dominated coverage by telling a rally that Republican leaders were conspiring against him: “There’s a whole sinister deal going on.”

Obsessing about media bias and alleging that the system is rigged might appeal to Mr. Trump’s base, but it does nothing to win support from undecided voters, and he’s behind.

Mr. Trump’s campaign machinery also leaves a lot to be desired. He has largely ceded the get-out-the-vote effort to the Republican National Committee, but there’s much more that he could do to funnel supporters into the GOP’s ground operations.

Then there’s the air war. Despite pledges in September to pump $140 million into television and digital advertising, Mr. Trump has been outspent on TV by 3 to 1. Total spending on presidential campaign ads so far is $342 million, according to a CNN analysis of data from Kantar Media/CMAG, a nonpartisan ad-monitoring firm. Three-quarters of that has been by spent by the Clinton campaign and its outside allies.

Mr. Trump’s shortcomings also affect Republican candidates running for the Senate and the House. Mrs. Clinton has moved resources into red states to broaden the Electoral College battlefield. Her campaign is now mounting a serious effort to grab Arizona, which no Democratic presidential candidate has carried since Bill Clinton in 1996, and Georgia, which Democrats last won in 1992. She’s also adding millions to get-out-the-vote efforts in Missouri, North Carolina and Indiana to aid Democratic Senate candidates in those states.

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