By Mike Lillis - 10-09-16 11:00 AM EDT
Republicans are not the only candidates facing a top-of-the-ticket problem.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, is dogged by high disapproval numbers, and the trend is more pronounced in certain battleground states where Democrats are hoping to save vulnerable incumbents or pick off Republican seats.
As a result, a handful of Democratic candidates - while not fleeing Clinton the same way many Republicans have bucked GOP nominee Donald Trump - are distancing themselves from some of Clinton's more liberal policy aims for fear of alienating voters in their conservative-leaning districts.
"There's a raging debate about how much Democrats should be focusing their message on Trump in some districts, and there are clearly districts where Clinton is more of a liability," said David Wasserman, an expert on House races at the Cook Political Report.
Rallying to Clinton's defense, Democrats are quick to note that Trump's candidacy has caused much more upheaval among Republicans, some of whom are racing away from the incendiary GOP nominee amid tough reelection bids. Reps. Carlos Curbelo (Fla.) and Bob Dold (Ill.), for instance, have outright rejected the Republican standard-bearer.
"Even though they aren't necessarily embracing her" in some districts, said a House Democratic leadership aide, "there's a big difference" between the Democratic candidates, who have all endorsed Clinton, "and the Republican side, where Trump is basically haunting" vulnerable GOP incumbents.
Still, the latest Gallup survey, released this week, shows that 54 percent of voters nationwide disapprove of Clinton, versus 42 percent who approve. And Republican strategists are hoping to tie Clinton to down-ballot Democrats in those contested districts where polls indicate she's likely to be most polarizing.
Exhibit A may be the race for northern Maine, where Democrat Emily Cain, a former state legislator, is challenging GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R) in a rematch of their 2014 contest. President Obama won the district easily in 2012, taking 52.9 percent of the vote to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's 44.4 percent. But Trump's anti-trade message has resonated in the district, and last month the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) launched an ad linking Cain to Clinton over their shared support for Obama's Iran nuclear deal and a handful of tax hikes.
"Emily Cain: She sides with Hillary, not us," the ad reads. "That's why she's wrong for Maine."
Cain's office fired back Friday, touting her bipartisan bona fides and dismissing the GOP ads as ineffective.
"Textbook partisan attacks funded by out of state special interests are going to fall flat, because they don't understand Maine," said spokesman Dan Gleick. "The truth is that Emily has a record of incredible bipartisan success, and was even able to work across the aisle with Governor [Paul] LePage to cut taxes for families and businesses."
Cain is not the only GOP target. In the upstate New York contest to replace outgoing GOP Rep. Richard Hanna, the NRCC this week launched another ad tying Democratic contender Kim Myers to Clinton and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) -both radioactive figures in conservative circles.
"A love-fest that would break our hearts," the ad reads.
In Indiana's 9th District, where Rep. Todd Young (R) is leaving the House to seek a Senate seat, a similar attack line has been adopted by Trey Hollingsworth, the Republican contender, against his Democratic opponent, Shelli Yoder. Romney trounced Obama in the district in 2012, 57 percent to 41 percent.
"By far the most powerful reason to vote against Shelli Yoder is that she is exactly like Hillary Clinton on the issues," reads Hollingsworth's website.
A Google search for "Shelli Yoder for Congress" yields this top hit: an ad for a Facebook account attacking Yoder by linking her to Clinton. It's titled "Just Like Hillary."
Political pundits and GOP strategists say Clinton would also prove to be a drag on Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.).
And this week, almost two months after New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) punted a question about Clinton's trustworthiness during her debate with Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), the NRCC launched a campaign calling on all Democratic candidates "to answer the 'Hassan Question' of whether they think Hillary Clinton is honest."
"[It] will be just one test of their judgment - or lack thereof," said NRCC spokesman Bob Salera.
The Republicans' Clinton strategy mirrors the effort of Democratic strategists to link vulnerable Republicans to Trump at the top of the GOP ticket. With both presidential nominees consistently earning "unfavorable" ratings topping 50 percent, there's little mystery behind the rationale.
There are, however, major differences in scale - largely for reasons of simple math. The Democrats currently control just five House seats in districts won by Romney four years ago; the Republicans, by contrast, represent 26 districts won by Obama.
"The Democrats don't really hold much Republican territory," Kyle Kondik, who analyzes House races for Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, said Friday.
It's a dynamic the Democrats are hoping to reverse - with Trump's help. The odds are not in their favor: With the Republicans controlling their largest majority in decades, the Democrats would need to pick up 30 seats to retake the House majority. Election handicappers say such a wave is unlikely this year, but not impossible.
"These things, they can develop really, really late," Kondik said. "But that would be more because Trump is weak than because Clinton is strong."