Politics & Policy

Trump Triage

Trump speaks to supporters in Mechaniscburg, Pa., August 1, 2016. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)
With 270 out of reach, it’s all about 51 and 218.

‘Abandon Trump.” “Pull the plug.” “Cut him off.”

These were among the calls over the past week from increasingly panicked Republicans — and not without reason. Trump is toxic where it matters, and he’s going to cost the GOP seats in Congress and in the states. The only question is how many.

Unfortunately for nervous Republicans, I have some bad news: Cutting Trump off is not going to happen.

There will be no reckoning, no rebuke, no open displays of antagonism in the final 80 days. The Republican National Committee has a fiduciary duty to its nominee, and that means it won’t publicly undermine Trump, no matter how ugly the numbers get. Nor would doing so be an effective means of inoculating its down-ballot candidates from the Trump fallout, which would ostensibly be the goal of such a move. If anything such a signal would make the down-ballot chore even more difficult, as Sean Spicer, the RNC’s top strategist, noted last Wednesday. It would also jeopardize the joint-fundraising structure that the committee is dependent on for a disproportionate chunk of its revenue. No matter how gratifying (or even righteous) such a grand gesture might be, this isn’t personal — it’s politics. And part of that political calculation means keeping up appearances, for better or worse, so that the bottom doesn’t fall out.

But that fiduciary responsibility works both ways. The RNC has a duty to ensure the success of the GOP as a whole, which means the nominee’s increasingly dubious path to the White House does not trump the party’s broader electoral considerations.

So no, the RNC isn’t going to “cut Trump off.” But it’s instructive to consider where the committee is putting its cash to begin with. The national party isn’t stockpiling cash for a big media blitz down the stretch like its congressional-campaign counterparts. The money is paying for field staff and setting up victory offices. It’s going toward mailers, campaign literature, and chasing down absentee ballots. These are shared, mutually beneficial investments for the good of the entire ticket. The question isn’t whether to do these things, it’s where to deploy the effort. And that’s the key: Triage isn’t punitive, it’s a function of scarcity, efficacy, and allocation.

Every dime spent outside of a state or district without a competitive Senate or House race is money wasted.

As 270 electoral votes slip out of reach, the imperative must shift to 51 and 218, respectively. Every dime spent outside of a state or district without a competitive Senate or House race is money wasted. That means no 50-state strategy or half-baked vanity sojourns into California or New York. It means no idle fantasies about running the table in the Rust Belt. The good news here is that the Senate map, in particular, aligns well with the places Trump needs to win: Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Nevada, New Hampshire, and North Carolina. Perhaps just as importantly, the purple states that have slipped out of reach — e.g., Virginia and Colorado — don’t meaningfully factor into the battle for the Senate and have limited exposure in the House.

The biggest variable may be what becomes of the funds allocated to eleven state-party signatories to the Trump Victory joint-fundraising agreement. None of the eleven states are considered toss-ups, and Virginia is the only one even nominally on the presidential radar. Yet the state committees will carve up evenly up to $110,000 from every Trump Victory megacheck, amounting to millions and perhaps tens of millions of dollars that can be transferred in unlimited sums. In effect, they are acting as escrow accounts, with faithful state chairman ready to steer the funds in accordance with the conditions on the ground. This pool of cash offers the biggest opportunity to shore up down-ballot Republicans; a layer removed from the RNC mothership, it offers inherent deniability to any charge of “cutting Trump off,” and, with so many moving parts, the mechanics are impossible to make sense of until the dust has settled. It’s my hunch that you’ll see these state parties go all in on the Senate battlegrounds.

This is how the party will triage the Trump campaign — not with a bang, but with a whimper.

#related#Many are anxious for a reprise of the 1996-style approach that preserved Republican majorities in the House and Senate while effectively abandoning Bob Dole. And indeed this remains the best case study in how to survive a top-of-the-ticket rout. But at the end of the day, this is a messaging strategy that won’t come from the RNC at all, it will come from its counterparts at the House and Senate campaign committees. And even then, the message will be Trump-agnostic, framing GOP candidates as a check on a Clinton administration and the specter of Democratic control at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The decision to grasp for Trump’s coattails or cut him loose will fall to the individual candidates based on their own circumstances. For now, it’s a question of political survival — accountability comes later.

Choose wisely.

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