Is distance from Trump a good reelection strategy for GOP senators?

Some Republican senators, especially those in tight reelection races, are planning on sitting out the Republican National Convention to distance themselves from the presumptive nominee. 

Alex Brandon/AP/File
Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio will not be attending the Republican National Convention, despite it being held in his home state. Other Republican senators up for reelection are also skipping the convention.

As Republicans from across the country gather in Cleveland for the party's convention, several vulnerable Republican senate incumbents have decided to sit out the convention in an effort to distance themselves from presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump.   

As Democrats try to tie these incumbents to their party's standard-bearer, Republican senators are staying in their home states to campaign instead of making the trip to Cleveland. Four of the seven Republican senators running for reelection in states that President Obama won twice are staying home, as The New York Times reports.

"For the ones who are running in swing states or Democratic leaning states, it's a necessary strategy to survive," Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University, tells The Christian Science Monitor. 

Increases in polarization, partisanship and straight-ticket voting make it difficult for Senate incumbents to escape the "downdraft" from Trump at the top of the ticket, he says. He expects Trump to lose in most of the Senate battleground "swing states", which will force the incumbents to try to gain votes from voters who vote for presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for president. This is a very difficult challenge, he says. 

"Pretty much all of them, to varying degrees, are trying to distance themselves from Trump to run on their own record and separate themselves as much as possible, to try to localize the election," he says. "The problem is that voters increasingly see these choices they're making in Senate and House elections as not just choices about who they want to represent them in their own state, or their own district, but as which party do they want to control the House or Senate." 

During the convention, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida plans to stay far away, speaking about the toxic algae blooms threatening Florida's coasts, the Times reported. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has endorsed Trump, will not be attending the convention – only eight years after he himself received the nomination – saying he instead will campaign in Arizona. Sen. Patrick Toomey plans on touring his state of Pennsylvania, visiting 13 counties. 

"American politics used to be more 'candidate-centered' than it is now, meaning that candidates could cultivate relationships with their constituencies and win re-election based on those personal relationships," Steven Webster, a political scientist at Emory University who co-wrote a paper with Professor Abramowitz on how US House and Senate elections are becoming more national, tells the Monitor in an email. "Increasingly, however, American elections have become party-centric and there is less room for individuals to distance themselves from their party."

Mr. Toomey's Democratic opponent Katie McGinty has tied Toomey to Trump, criticizing the "Trump-Toomey" ticket in a move reflective of Democratic campaigns across the country. 

Like Rubio, many other GOP figures are eager to emphasize local issues or topics far from the heart of Trump's platform. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, for example, who "supports" Trump but does "endorse" him, will be highlighting her work on a bill to fight opioid addiction with Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, the Times reports.

“We’re not running presidential races,” said Ward Baker, the executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told Politico. “We’re running sheriff races.” 

Despite his endorsement of Trump, Mr. Portman is trying to distance himself from the presumptive nominee, Lauren Copeland, an assistant professor of political science at Baldwin Wallace University, says in an interview with the Monitor. 

"Ohio is a swing state, and one in which there is an equal divide between Democrats and Republicans," she says. "With all the money that's being pumped into the state in support of [Democratic Senate nominee and former governor] Ted Strickland, he wants to present himself as a more moderate candidate and not be associated with the rhetoric Trump has been exposing." 

Members of the Ohio delegation, with whom Professor Copeland is embedded at this week's convention, are worried about voters staying home because they don't want to vote for Trump, which could hurt Portman's chances, she says. 

"There's definitely a sense within the Ohio delegation that they don't have a candidate this upcoming presidential election, and I think Portman's staff and Portman himself are kind of in tune with that, and to associate himself with Trump would damage his electoral prospects among the swing voters this November," she says.  

Portman is not speaking at the convention, despite having addressed the previous six conventions. However, he is in Cleveland and has been trying to court votes while distancing himself from Trump, Copeland says. 

Although Mrs. Clinton is also seen as unpopular, Abramowitz noted that Democrats had seemed to have rallied around her campaign in a way Republicans have not rallied around Trump, as seen through the senators deciding to skip the convention.   

"Republican candidates will try to separate themselves from Trump as much as possible, and try to localize the races. Democrats are going to try to nationalize the races," he says. "In recent elections, the side that tries to nationalize the race has generally been more successful."

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