GRAYSLAKE, Ill. — When GOP Rep. Bob Dold ran for reelection in 2012, he polled over 8 percentage points better than Mitt Romney — and he still lost. Dold managed to win back his seat in the midterms, but if he and a handful of other suburban Republicans are to hang on in 2016, they may have to outrun Donald Trump by twice that margin.
Trump is just that unpopular in Dold’s suburban Chicago district and other suburban swing districts around the country. Dold is part of a small and embattled group of House Republicans who could outrun Trump by double digits and still come up short on election night.
But so far, Dold and his colleagues have managed to prevent Democrats from locking down their House seats despite Trump’s struggles, keeping their races in the toss-up column weeks before Election Day. The endangered Republicans are running furiously to the center, emphasizing their opposition to Trump and highlighting bipartisan policy accomplishments in Congress.
“Our job is to make sure people know who we are and what we stand for,” Dold said in an interview. “And I think we will, as we did in the last presidential election cycle, significantly outperform” the top of the ticket.
So far, Dold and the others are running far ahead of Trump. A Time Warner Cable News/Siena College poll conducted late last month found GOP Rep. John Katko of New York with a double-digit lead over his Democratic challenger — and running 20 points ahead of Trump in his upstate district, with 53 percent support compared with Trump’s 33 percent.
Hillary Clinton is also expected to wallop Trump in suburbs of Miami, Minneapolis, Denver and Washington, D.C. The Republican incumbents there have all ditched Trump, and they’re working overtime to win over Clinton voters. The Washington Post editorial board backed GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock of Northern Virginia last weekend after not endorsing her in the past, noting that she had “taken some steps to temper her hard-right conservatism.” GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo is running a TV ad in Miami denouncing “politicians from both parties bragging about offensive, crass behavior” as the 2005 tape of Trump and Billy Bush plays in the background.
But no one has a higher hill to climb than Dold, whose district in 2012 gave President Barack Obama a bigger share of the vote than any other represented by a Republican. Democratic and Republican internal polls show Clinton is likely to carry Dold’s district by an even greater margin than Obama’s 17-point victory.
Even Democrats acknowledge that Dold and others have worked hard to separate themselves from Trump. “They may still very well lose, but I think they’ve done what they could to fight off the wave if it comes,” said Karl Agne, a top Democratic House pollster.
A poll conducted for the National Republican Congressional Committee and Dold’s campaign earlier this month found him running 19 points ahead of Trump and beating former Rep. Brad Schneider 50 percent to 43 percent. A poll conducted days later for the Democratic House Majority PAC found Schneider leading Dold 48 percent to 38 percent, with Dold running 8 points ahead of Trump.
But to win, Dold may have to outperform his party’s nominee by a higher margin than almost any candidate has in recent memory, cobbling together a fragile coalition of Trump supporters — some of whom haven’t taken kindly to Dold’s disavowal of the presidential nominee — as well as Clinton and Obama fans.
So Dold is tacking hard to the middle. During a candidate forum with Schneider this month in Lake Forest, a leafy lakefront suburb that’s inhospitable territory for Trump, Dold staked out moderate or even liberal positions on guns, immigration, climate change and abortion rights. He talked about “the Affordable Care Act” instead of “Obamacare” — and he bragged about being one of only a handful of Republicans to vote against repealing it. When Schneider mentioned his support of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, Dold interrupted him.
“I support the Clean Power Plan, too,” Dold said.
At a forum later that afternoon in North Chicago , Dold went even further. “Time and time and time again I’ve stood up to my party when I think that they’re wrong; I’ve worked with the other side when I think that they’re right,” Dold said.
Schneider has countered by reminding voters that no matter how moderate Dold says he is, Schneider is still the Democrat in a district Obama won twice by enormous margins. To hammer the point home, Schneider and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last week started running a TV ad narrated by Obama — the first TV ad the president cut for a candidate in the 2016 general election.
In an interview, Schneider argued that Dold’s record in Washington isn’t nearly as moderate as he claimed. And he criticized Dold for headlining a fundraiser for local candidates last month titled “Beat Hillary at the Distillery.” (The Lake County GOP, which held the event, is supporting Trump, but Republicans say the event didn’t actually raise money for efforts to defeat Clinton.)
“It is clear that the only thing standing between Donald Trump and the presidency is Hillary Clinton,” Schneider said. “And to be actively campaigning against Hillary Clinton is tantamount to supporting Donald Trump.”
But Illinois’ 10th District has a long tradition of sending moderate Republicans to Congress. GOP Sen. Mark Kirk held the seat for a decade before running for Senate in 2010, running 15 percentage points ahead of presidential nominee John McCain to hang onto the House seat in 2008.
Dold was the first House Republican in the country to disavow the eventual GOP nominee. He ditched Trump more than a year ago, after Trump first mocked McCain for being captured in Vietnam, where Dold’s uncle was also imprisoned during the war.
“You’ve seen Republicans in other parts of the country that were with Trump, then they were against Trump, then they were cozying back up to Trump,” said Aaron Lawlor, the chairman of the Lake County Board and a former campaign staffer for Kirk when he represented the district. But Dold has “had a consistent opinion the whole way through.”
No one knows exactly how far ahead of Trump Dold and the other Republicans who’ve rejected him will be able to run. Dold and his allies argue that he’s better-positioned than he was in 2012, when much of the district was new territory for Dold after redistricting. And Republicans are running a stronger ground game in the state, said Nick Klitzing, the Illinois Republican Party’s executive director.
“I think that Donald Trump could lose [Dold’s district] by 40 points and it could still be competitive,” Klitzing said.
But candidates almost never outperform their party’s presidential nominee by such margins. The exceptions have tended to be Democrats, said Dave Wasserman, the House editor for the Cook Political Report. Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, for instance, ran 21 points ahead of Obama in 2012 — and then lost his seat two years later.
“I think the most a Republican will be able to run ahead of the ticket is 15 points, and that’s if you’re a rock star,” Wasserman said.
And Dold’s disavowal of Trump cuts both ways. It’s likely to help him in the wealthy lakefront suburbs of the North Shore, but it could cost him votes in less-affluent towns further from Chicago.
As Dold campaigned one morning last week in Fred’s Diner in Grayslake, nearly 50 miles north of Chicago, two women having breakfast together in a booth chided him for not backing the Republican nominee.
“We don’t like the fact that he’s not supporting Trump, because we’re so anti-Hillary,” said Betsie Brown, 52, who owns a baking business.
Her friend Barb Fox, 62, said that one of her neighbors had been approached by the Dold campaign and had refused to volunteer until Dold backed Trump.
Brown would love to see a woman in the White House, she said — but not Clinton, whom she views as corrupt. She sees the media as biased against Trump, and she’s untroubled by the recent tape of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women. “It’s one thing to talk smack and another thing to act on it,” she said.
Fox and Brown can stomach the idea of Dold not voting for Trump. But they said they’d reconsider their support for Dold if he cast a ballot for Clinton.
“If he votes for Hillary, I’m gonna have a hard time with that,” Fox said.
Dold has said for months that he won’t vote for Clinton and plans to write in a candidate. But with three weeks to go, he still hadn’t decided who it will be.
“I have not reached that decision yet,” Dold said over corned beef hash. But “I will vote for someone that I think would be able to unite the country, will be able to provide a vision about where we need to go.”
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