Republicans feel heat as Trump flames out

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a rally, Friday, Sept. 30, 2016, in Novi, Mich.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a rally, Friday, Sept. 30, 2016, in Novi, Mich. The Associated Press

I hesitate to use the term “sex tape” because nobody needs to be thinking about Donald Trump tweets on a Sunday morning.

But Trump’s middle-of-the-night tweets defending how he insulted a Miss Universe require reflection about the people we’re choosing to lead us, who they think we are, and what it all might mean for congressional candidates running down-ticket.

There is a fundamental truth in politics: Elections are not about the candidates; they about the people who have the opportunity to vote for them. Sure, we spend months and years batting around the people brave enough to jump into the arena. We prod them, we test their ideas, challenge past statements, and closely watch how they deal with the pressure of the campaign trail.

But as people settle on who they want in the Oval Office, the decision is less about misstatements and contradictions. Rather, each voter must decide what that candidate would mean for his or her family. That’s ultimately why Donald Trump’s behavior presents a clear and present danger for every Republican running for Congress in competitive seats in California and across the country.

Going into the first presidential debate on Monday, Trump had a very simple mission: give voters who were not yet Hillary Clinton supporters but still resistant to Trump a reason to support his uneven candidacy.

Every bit of post-debate data available shows he failed miserably. Clinton cleaned his clock. Trump not only failed to gain support, but lost some soft support. What then does Trump’s Titanic-like campaign mean for the Republican candidates who share a party affiliation with him?

The smartest lines of attack by Democrats will be those that illustrate how Republican candidates are aligned with Trump on issues that matter to voters, even if candidates distance themselves from him.

It strains credulity to associate Trump’s bombastic insults with Republicans who are or seem to be moderate. But some of Trump’s views align with other Republicans, and that is highly relevant to voters as they consider issues that matter to them and their families.

Trump supports defunding Planned Parenthood. So does Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, who has said he will vote for Trump. Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, like Trump, supports an immigration policy that would tear families apart.

Trump has said he supports punishment for women who get abortions. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, similarly supports a ban on abortion so restrictive it doesn’t include exceptions for rape or to protect the life of the mother. And so on. (Disclosure: I work for Democratic congressional candidates and committees in California and across the country).

Speaker Paul Ryan leaned in on this point at the Economic Club of New York by saying that “unified Republican governance” – control of the House, Senate and a Trump presidency – would allow the GOP to pursue a shared agenda.

After playing footsie with Trump for months, Ryan is promoting the idea that a Republican Congress could finally bring about policy he has sought his entire career, if Trump is elected.

That might play well in Kansas, but it’s not reassuring for voters in most of California or in any other state where a majority of voters are going to choose Hillary Clinton. It’s definitely not helpful for congressional candidates if the word “Republican” is next to their names on the November ballot.

The inverse of this is also true. If a majority of voters are coming to the polls to support Hillary Clinton, they are not likely to vote for someone whose goal in a Clinton administration would be to obstruct her agenda.

This is a complicated election because the issues landscape has been shaken up. On trade and Social Security, Trump has done a good job muddying the discussion and diverging from Republican orthodoxy. This has helped reinforce his message that he is a change candidate, but has also alienated the moderate educated Republican voters he desperately needs.

It’s further complicated by conflicting information in the ether. For example, The Washington Post reported recently that the left-leaning Analyst Institute ran a study trying to track the effectiveness of delivering attacks that tie Republican candidates to Trump. But that study is flawed because it didn’t include Democratic voters, making the information of limited use in an election in which consolidating and maximizing Democratic turnout is as important as any imperative Democrats have this year.

The 2016 election is about Trump. The challenge for Democrats will be to illustrate the significance to voters of a Trump presidency, combined with their local congressional candidates.

The old saying in my newly adopted state is familiar: As goes California, so goes the nation. Actually, no one has said that about a presidential election in decades.

But as Trump fades and tweets his defense for calling Alicia Machado “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeper,” congressional races will tighten. And the trend developing in California could spread to a surprising number of districts across the country.

Bill Burton is California managing director of SKDKnickerbocker in Los Angeles, where he is a political and public affairs consultant. Previously, he served as White House deputy press secretary and special assistant to President Barack Obama. Contact Burton at