Local GOP candidates: how to handle Trump


Should down-ballot GOP candidates be concerned about a Trump candidacy? I want to help answer a question two types of local candidates should be thinking about:

  1. Should a GOP-leaning city council candidate in Lexington, Kentucky be worried about Donald Trump at the top of the ticket?
  2. Should a GOP candidate for state house of representatives in Auburn, Washington be worried about Donald Trump at the top of the ticket?

Should city council candidates be concerned about being tied to Trump?

The short answer "probably not." Voters tend to differentiate between down ballot races and the top of the ticket. If you're running for city council, you likely don't have a party label next to your name anyway. While voters tend to intuitively know which candidate leans right and which leans left, it is unlikely they will punish their local city council candidate for being of the same party as Trump.

The pushback within the GOP against Trump has been strong enough that most voters will recognize that Trump isn't "the new GOP," he's a candidate who managed to co-opt the GOP while many republicans fought him. 

There are a few things you may want to be aware of though:

  1. It is possible that many GOP voters stay home rather than choose between Trump and Hillary. Have a plan to get your voters out. 
  2. It is always difficult for municipal candidates to break through the noise in a presidential election cycle. If Trump is the nominee, it will be more difficult this year. Imagine yourself trying to get voters to think about the city council while Trump is on the debate stage with Clinton talking about Monica Lewinsky. It's not going to be easy. Focus on grassroots, door-to-door persuasion. 

Should state representative candidates be concerned?

A candidate for state representative may have to worry about being tied to Trump. There are two schools of thought here:

  1. The GOP presidential candidate at the top of the ticket has coattails, either boosting all republican candidates or dragging them down. 
  2. The "coattails" theory is overrated, See Harry Enten's piece on coattails from 538. 

I suspect that voters tend to punish down-ballot candidates in off years, like 2014. Obama was unpopular in November 2014, but he wasn't on the ballot. So voters punished the next best thing: democratic senators. 

In 2016, voters who don't like Trump can cast their vote against Trump. There are also a few other mitigating factors that should comfort down-ballot republicans: 1) Secretary Clinton isn't particularly popular either and 2) Because the Democrats have held the White House for 8 years, voters may be less inclined to punish the party as a whole. 

I recommend keeping a few things in mind:

  1. Make sure you have clear message, so you're not just a generic republican. Candidate should have a clear message every year, but it'll be particularly important if you're trying to distance yourself from Trump.
  2. Make your position on Trump clear, whether you're a supporter or non-supporter.
  3. Have an answer ready: "Will you vote for Trump?" Some journalist will ask you. 
  4. Ask the state legislative campaign committee what other candidates are doing. If there is an opportunity to present a united front, it will help create distance between you and Trump.
  5. Keep in mind that the two recommendations for city council candidates (above) apply here too: many of your voters might stay home, and it's going to be difficult to cut through the noise of an entertaining presidential campaign.

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