WASHINGTON (AP) — Endangered Sen. Pat Toomey is banking on Pennsylvania voters backing him in November even if they oppose fellow Republican Donald Trump, a ticket-splitting strategy that may help determine whether the GOP can hang on to its Senate majority this election year.
"Pennsylvania voters are really quite sophisticated and they know for sure that Donald Trump is in a category unto himself," Toomey told reporters on a conference call Friday. "So they will make their decision about the presidential race, and then they will make a completely separate decision about the person they want representing them in the United States Senate."
Whether Toomey is right is a key question this year, as Republicans battle to defend Senate seats in battleground states including Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Hampshire and Florida. Trump could lose all those states, along with Nevada, where a Democratic-held seat is vacant; if Republicans can't prevail in Senate races nonetheless, they will lose their Senate majority.
Democrats need a net gain of five Senate seats to retake the majority, or four if they hold the White House and can send the vice president to cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate.
Republicans' strategy all year has been to run Senate races that are intently focused on local issues, as if they were running for sheriff. Democrats' approach is the opposite: They are trying to tie all GOP Senate candidates to Trump, including Toomey, who is among a small number who hasn't actually endorsed the billionaire businessman.
Toomey, who's seeking his second six-year term, said Friday he's "still watching and waiting and evaluating" when it comes to Trump. He offered some criticism of Trump's campaign, saying the GOP nominee should stay focused on Hillary Clinton's record as secretary of state, rather than "getting involved in other unrelated discussions."
Aides to Toomey's Democratic opponent, Katie McGinty, scoffed at Toomey's attempts to separate himself from Trump and predicted his strategy would fail.
"Pennsylvanians understand that it's a Trump-Toomey ticket," said McGinty spokesman Sean Coit. "If he opposes Clinton, as he says he does, he's by definition supporting not only Trump, but the policies and values Trump would bring to the White House."
Polls seem to offer some evidence that voters are distinguishing between Trump and GOP Senate candidates.
In Pennsylvania, Clinton is ahead by mid-to-high single digits, while several polls show McGinty and Toomey very close. In Ohio, incumbent GOP Sen. Rob Portman is also running ahead of Trump.
But in New Hampshire, incumbent GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte got bad news in a WBUR poll this week that showed Clinton taking a big lead in her state, and Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan also jumping out to a 10-point lead in the Senate race.
Republicans note that Trump became known to the public not as a member of their party, but as a mogul and reality TV star, which might help voters differentiate him from down-ballot GOP candidates.
"Right now, if you look at the way these races are coming together, I think that the Republican candidates by and large are significantly over-performing where you would expect them to be, given the state of the presidential race," said Josh Holmes, a GOP consultant and former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
If Trump continues to lose ground, some Republican candidates may begin to argue outright that voters need to elect Republicans as a check on a Clinton administration, a strategy used in 1996 when Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole was on track for a loss. House Speaker Paul Ryan sent out a fundraising email Thursday urging, "If we fail to protect our majority in Congress, we could be handing President Hillary Clinton a blank check."
Some Democratic consultants say Republican Senate candidates might be able to run a few points ahead of Trump, but not enough to save them if Trump goes down to big defeat.
"By the time we get to November, I think it's a really hard argument to make to people that 'I hope you'll just ignore our presidential race and come out and vote for me,'" said Martha McKenna, a Democratic media consultant and former political director with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.