LAS VEGAS — On April 18, about two weeks before the end of the Republican primary, Hillary Clinton issued a grave warning to a small group of Democratic volunteers.
The rebuke was one of the last that Clinton would aim at the GOP writ large. Later that spring, the Democratic nominee set out on a new and unprecedented effort to decouple Trump from the rest of his own party, casting the billionaire as “even more extreme than the rank-and-file Republican.” Clinton dedicated the summer and early fall to courting bipartisan support and building a case against Trump that had little to do with the GOP, its policies, rhetoric, or any of its candidates running in House and Senate races.
The campaign didn’t “want to link the House and Senate Republicans to Trump” or “connect Trump and the Republican Party,” according to hacked emails from May of this year between the Democratic National Committee and Clinton strategists.
Five months later, aides signaled, the message was about to change all over again.
This week, as Clinton traveled to rallies in Las Vegas and Pueblo, Colorado, her campaign strategists previewed a new push from the candidate on down-ballot Republicans. Amid an apparent breaking point within GOP — and a new opportunity for Democrats to gain seats — Clinton, aides said, would finally tie House and Senate candidates to their nominee.
The newly critical stance from Clinton’s senior officials? Republicans made their bed. Now they have to lie in it. “I would remind a lot of the people who are deserting him, they propped him up for a very long time,” campaign chairman John Podesta told reporters late Tuesday night aboard Clinton’s “Stronger Together” Boeing 737.
“They have to answer for that,” he said.
On Wednesday, on the plane ride to a rally in Las Vegas, campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri gave reporters a heads-up that Clinton would be using her speech to hit Rep. Joe Heck, the US Senate candidate in Nevada who revoked his support for Trump after the release of the 2005 video in which Trump talked about grabbing women “by the pussy” and forcibly kissing them.
But when she took the stage at Symphony Park in Las Vegas, Clinton didn’t mention Heck.
In recent days, the candidate and her aides have spoken more and more about down-ballot Democrats and the party’s chances of wresting back control of the Senate. But Clinton has yet to embrace a sharp message tying Trump to the party — one that some Democrats, including officials at the Democratic National Committee, hoped to hear from the start of the general.
The campaign’s attempt to “disaggregate” Trump from the GOP, they worried, might let the rest of Republicans on the ticket “off the hook” and undermine a message Democrats had already been trying to drive for years about an increasingly extreme Republican Party.
“I’ve heard a lot of bitching from Democratic officials and candidates in key states that the Clinton campaign’s strategy to triage the GOP establishment from Trump has been downright unhelpful,” said Lis Smith, a Democratic operative who helped lead Martin O’Malley’s presidential campaign last year.
Pollsters and strategists said Clinton’s message throughout the general election might have even helped create a consequence-free environment for Republicans. In battleground states, voters see establishment candidates like Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania as a “different kind of Republican” than Trump, according to a series of YouGov–CBS News polls. And a recent survey by USA Today and Suffolk University found that 52% of people who’ve chosen to back Clinton are “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to split the ticket when they vote next month.
One challenge with tying Trump to down-ballot Republicans: Voters don’t see candidates such as Ayotte, a well-liked and somewhat moderate lawmaker in New Hampshire, saying or doing anything in the mold of Trump, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for the Cook Political Report, where she tracks Senate races. “These Senate candidates and Trump are not alike,” she said. “One Republican campaign manager told me that they did a focus group and they put up a picture of their candidate and Trump, and people laughed.”
Inside the party, President Obama has been the one to make the most forceful case against Trump as a symptom of the modern GOP, arguing that Republicans may not look or sound like their party’s standard bearer, but they enabled his rise.
“The problem is not that all Republicans think the way this guy does,” he said while campaigning for Clinton in Ohio this week. “The problem is, is that they’ve been riding this tiger for a long time. They’ve been feeding their base all kinds of crazy for years, primarily for political expedience.”
“They stood by while this happened,” Obama said. “And Donald Trump, as he’s prone to do, he didn't build the building himself, but he just slapped his name on it and took credit for it.”
As Clinton aides forecast a possible return to rhetoric like Obama’s, they risk muddling the message the candidate has been driving since spring. “This is the exact opposite of what they’ve been doing,” said Colin Reed, head of the anti-Clinton research effort, America Rising, who noticed the shift after campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri first told reporters on Monday that candidates like Ayotte helped “legitimize” Trump.
“You can’t just change a message on a dime four weeks out,” Reed said.
Asked how the campaign would be able to balance a more condemnatory message with its ongoing efforts to woo Republicans and Independents turned off by Trump, including with their branded “Together for America” initiative, Palmieri simply said Clinton was “grateful” for bipartisan support but that it wouldn’t stop her from pressing the GOP in service of Democrats up and down the ballot.
During the primary, Clinton often spoke in passionate terms about helping build a “deep bench” of Democrats across the states, admitting that the party has a problem when it comes to midterm elections in particular. Bringing “as many Democrats with me to Washington as I possibly can,” she promised last year, would be central to the legacy of her presidential bid.
Clinton does campaign with down-ballot Democrats and almost always makes a point of mentioning key races in the states she visits. But for some in the party, her efforts have been lacking when it comes to hammering the other side.
Democrats have yet to see Clinton “make sure that vulnerable Republicans cannot distance themselves from the Trump trainwreck,” said Smith, the former O’Malley strategist.
One Democratic member of Congress agreed. “You gotta take what the defense gives you,” the lawmaker said, when asked if Clinton could be doing more. “If they set you up for an easy lay-up, take it.”
—Additional reporting by Kate Nocera.