In key states, voters poised to split their tickets between GOP, Democrats

After more than three decades of decline, ticket-splitting voters appear ready for a comeback. Officials in both parties hope the unpopularity of their presidential candidate won't depress votes for their other candidates on the ballot. 

Matt Rourke/AP/File
Sen. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania, shown here at a news conference in Philadelphia, faces an uphill battle in this key swing state if Donald Trump turns off too many voters and they don't split their tickets and vote for Senator Toomey.

In a year when Republicans worry that “the Trump effect” could depress turnout and cost them the United States Senate, voters like Barbara Tallent just might help keep them in control.

She strongly objects to Donald Trump’s values and is “absolutely” considering a third-party candidate. However, even if she doesn’t vote for the celebrity star for president, she’s almost certain to vote for Republicans on the rest of the ballot in North Carolina, a battleground state. That would help Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who is in danger of losing his seat.

“Trump has no Christian values. He’s just pretending,” says Ms. Tallent, a mother of four, as she emerges from the post office in Mint Hill, a suburb of Charlotte. On the other hand, she describes Hillary Clinton as a “criminal.” Tallent says it’s Trump versus a third party or a write-in. After that, “I’ll probably vote Republican as I go down the ballot.”

This “ticket splitting,” reflecting an independent-mindedness in which voters are willing to split their ballot choices between parties, has been on the decline. For more than three decades, Americans have increasingly voted a straight, party-line ballot – a sign of political polarization in the country.

But some observers believe that ticket splitting may increase this year, given the unpopularity of the presidential candidates. More Barbara Tallents could help Senate Republicans, who are defending 24 seats this year compared with the Democrats’ 10. Democrats need only take four seats to regain control of the chamber – if they keep all of their present seats and win the White House (so the vice president can break any tie votes).

“Republicans, worried that Trump will lose, will argue that Trump’s a different candidate, that there will be more ticket splitting of this kind, and that voters will want to put a check on Clinton – and those are all reasonable arguments,” says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.

Conversely, if it looks like Mrs. Clinton will lose and "given the deep doubts about Trump’s judgment, temperament, and preparedness for the job, I would think the incentive for swing voters to go with a Democrat for the Senate or House might increase," longtime political analyst Charlie Cook wrote last month.

Key race in the Keystone State

In Pennsylvania, another battleground state for the presidency and the Senate, “I think we could see a reversal in that trend” of straight-ticket voting, says pollster G. Terry Madonna. “My question is how much of a reversal.”

Incumbent Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, is in a very tight race with Democrat Katie McGinty. If voters who reject Trump vote for Senator Toomey, that would be a boost, but probably not enough to rescue him if Clinton takes the state by a large margin, says Mr. Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

“His biggest danger is her coattails. If she wins our state by 9 or 10 points, her coattails would be huge, and Toomey would need an unprecedented amount of ticket splits,” explains Madonna. At the moment, Clinton is up by an average of 6 points in the Keystone state. In recent weeks her margin there has narrowed, as it has nationally.

The race between Clinton and Trump is much closer in North Carolina, a virtual tie, according to the Real Clear Politics average of four statewide polls. Given that about a fifth of the state’s Republicans view Trump unfavorably, a Trump downdraft on the rest of the ballot could cost GOP candidates three to six percentage points, especially if many Republicans stay home, wrote Republican strategist Paul Shumaker in a private memo, as recently reported by The News & Observer in Raleigh.

Among Mr. Shumaker’s clients is Senator Burr. North Carolina has a history of ticket splitting, though it’s rare that its voters actually elect a president and a senator from different parties. Still, Shumaker has said he believes that voters in the middle will split for Burr as a check on a potential Clinton White House – even if they vote for her.

For a senator seeking his third term, however, he’s not very well known to voters in his state. That’s perhaps because he’s chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee – which deals with classified material that he can’t talk about.

He also is not a big retail politician. He kept off the campaign trail in August, to the chagrin of some GOP observers. He told The Wall Street Journal last month that voters don’t start paying attention until after Labor Day and that it’s really the last three weeks that are most important.

“Burr has been a Washington senator, rather than a North Carolina senator, which may not be a bad thing for the country but it might be a bad thing for him,” says Ted Arrington, professor emeritus of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

The Republican has an additional challenge: his support for Trump, says Walt de Vries, a Wilmington-based political consultant and founder of the North Carolina Institute of Political Leadership. He may go down with the GOP candidate. [Editor's note: This sentence was shortened to clarify the meaning.]

Unexpected challenge

Burr’s competitor is also not well-known in the state. Deborah Ross is a lawyer, a former state legislator and former head of the North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union. Yet she spent August crisscrossing the state and got a jump on him in advertising.

To see her at a meet-and-greet with supporters at a small bookstore in Fayetteville is to be reminded of a much bigger personality in Democratic circles: Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Ms. Ross – just as wiry and feisty, though sporting a blond shock of hair  – is an energetic progressive who, like Senator Warren, can deliver a speech with punch.

Given the unexpectedly close race, a top GOP super political action committee with ties to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky has reserved more than $8 million in ads on behalf of Burr. Both campaigns are hitching their opponents to the unpopular presidential candidates of their parties.

With the presidential race stirring such passions, North Carolina’s Senate race “doesn’t have a lot to do with Richard and Deborah. It’s surely more things outside their control that are affecting the election,” says Carter Wrenn, a Republican blogger and long-time strategist and campaign operative in the state.

The outcome of both the presidential and Senate races in the Tar Heel state lie in the hands of undecided voters – a lot of them independents and conflicted Republicans, Mr. Wrenn says. Many of them are newcomers to the state and live in suburbs such as Mint Hill. “Nobody knows” how they’ll come down in the end, he says.

Take Belle Green, who also lives in Mint Hill. She has been a straight-ticket GOP voter all her life, but says she won’t be voting the party line this year. Like Tallent, she’s considering a third party for the top job, but she’ll also be looking at each individual candidate down the ballot and judge each one on the merits.

There’s no guarantee she’ll vote for Burr, whom she says she doesn’t know much about.

Calling herself a Reagan Republican, Ms. Green says her party no longer reflects her values. “I’m going to hack that ticket up. I feel the party’s not mine.”

It’s a reminder that ticket splitting can go both ways.

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