By Alexander Bolton - 08-05-16 06:00 AM EDT
New polls showing Hillary Clinton opening up big leads over Donald Trump in two key battlegrounds has sparked alarm among Republicans who worry he will sink their Senate majority.
Trump has had a bad two weeks, and the damage is starting to show in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, two crucial swing states.
Republican strategists and neutral political experts say if Trump loses by 8 points or more in states with competitive Senate races, he will likely take Republican incumbents down with him.
"If Trump can keep it close then Senate Republican incumbents have a good chance of winning but if he craters, it's end of story," said one Senate Republican strategist.
A WBUR poll of New Hampshire voters released Thursday showed Clinton beating Trump by 17 points in a head-to-head matchup in the Granite State and by 15 points in a four-way race with the Libertarian and Green Party candidates.
The same survey shows Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) trailing Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan by 10 points, 50 percent to 40 percent.
Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said it will be difficult for Ayotte to win if Clinton carries the state by 8 points or more.
"Eight to 10 points, a loss like that would be roughly what McCain's loss to Obama was in 2008, which spelled the end for John Sununu. That's an awful lot to ask Ayotte to make up," he said.
President Obama defeated Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the GOP nominee, by 9 points in 2008. Then-Republican Sen. John Sununu (N.H.) ran 3 points ahead of McCain, but he couldn't make up the margin and lost his seat.
In Pennsylvania, another Senate battleground, a Franklin & Marshall poll published Thursday shows Clinton leading Trump by 11 points among likely voters, 49 percent to 38, and by 13 points among registered voters, 48 percent to 35.
That's bad news for Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, another Republican incumbent facing a tough reelection.
"In 1984, one out of every two voters cast a vote for the president of one party and a member of Congress from the other. In 2012, that number dropped to 20 percent, one in five. So we're talking about the proverbial coat-tail effect," said Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall poll.
"You could see that having a huge effect in the Senate," he added.
A Republican Party official pushed back against both polls, arguing they don't reflect the reality on the ground.
The source argued the WBUR poll was conducted from July 29 to Aug. 1, immediately after the Democratic National Convention when Clinton was enjoying a peak in positive media coverage.
"This is a short-term Dem convention bounce and the race should normalize soon," the source said
The official said the Franklin & Marshall poll was flawed because it tested nine different attributes about the presidential race, which all favored Clinton, before asking about the Senate race.
"That is called priming and can push voters in certain directions by highlighting certain issues or attributes in terms of how they might vote," the source said.
But Trump's drop in the polls isn't confined to New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, Madonna noted.
A nationwide Fox News poll published Monday showed Clinton beating Trump by 10 points.
The latest numbers are causing alarm among Senate Republicans, who must defend 24 seats in November while Democrats only need to protect 10. If Clinton wins the White House, Democrats need to pick up a net of four seats to recapture control of the upper chamber.
"It scares them. Any Republican in cycle is looking at the polls right now and it makes them very nervous," said Brian Darling, a former Senate Republican aide.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has signaled that he is willing to distance his vulnerable members from Trump if needed.
McConnell told colleagues at a lunch earlier this year that the Senate GOP would drop Trump "like a hot rock" if he starts to collapse in the polls.
Trump could put other Republican incumbents in danger, too. If Trump bombs in Ohio or Florida, it could hurt Sens. Rob Portman and Marco Rubio, respectively.
McCain is in the fight of his life in Arizona and saw Trump this week refuse to endorse him.
"Every state is different but I would say if he loses by more than four or five points it becomes problematic. It's very unusual for - particularly an incumbent - someone in the same party to run more than a handful of points ahead of the top of the ticket," said John Weaver, who served as a senior adviser to McCain's 2008 presidential campaign and Ohio Gov. John Kasich's bid this year.
"If this happens in New Hampshire, in Pennsylvania, in Ohio, in Iowa, in Wisconsin, et cetera, it's going to be very problematic to hold the Senate," he added.
Voters these days tend to vote throughout the ticket the same way they do at the top.
Or if Republicans, conservatives or independents are turned off by Trump, they're less likely to show up to the polls.
But Darling and other strategists say it's too soon to write off Trump as a loser.
"We have three debates coming up and a long way to go until Election Day," he added. "It's unnerving to see these numbers, but what have we seen? The polls are pretty volatile. They've been up and down and all around."
The Senate GOP strategist said Trump can come back if he sticks to his economic message and avoids getting tangled up in distracting fights.
"He's got the ability to close the gap if he stays disciplined and focuses on the economy," the source said. "If he's criticizing another Gold Star family, if he's stuck in this morass of bad news, then he's in big trouble."
Trump has had a string of public relations mishaps over the past two weeks.
He became the center of a firestorm during the Democratic convention when he called on Russian agents to obtain the 30,000 missing messages Clinton deleted from her private email server. Critics charged he was inviting a hostile foreign power to steal sensitive information.
Trump stumbled again in recent days by picking a fight with the parents of Capt. Humayun Khan, a Muslim American soldier who was killed in the line of duty in Iraq. Khan's father, Khizr, criticized Trump pointedly during at speech at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia.
Trump shocked Republican lawmakers and strategists by firing back at the Khan family, instead of keeping his focus on Clinton.
"The big one was this continued controversy with the Gold Star families," said Madonna, referring to families that lost members to war. "They're coming out and condemning him."
On Tuesday, Trump in an interview with The Washington Post refused to endorse McCain or Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in their primaries, further angering and worrying Republicans.