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OP-ED: With Trump trailing, should down-ballot Republicans ready a ‘no blank check’ strategy?

Stuart Rothenberg
CQ-Roll Call (TNS)
Republican challenger Bob Dole, left, waves to the crowd alongside President Bill Clinton at the conclusion of their first debate, October 6, 1996, in Hartford, Connecticut. (Jon Levy/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Weeks before the 1996 general election, operatives at the Republican National Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee urged GOP campaigns to adopt a last-minute, new strategy.

As New York Times reporter Adam Clymer wrote, they urged “their party’s Congressional candidates to cut loose from Bob Dole and press voters to maintain a Republican majority and deny a re-elected (Bill) Clinton a ‘blank check.’”

“If Clinton is re-elected, heaven forbid, the last thing the American people want is for him to have a blank check in the form of a liberal Democrat Congress,” RNC Chairman Haley Barbour said in the article.

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To the dismay of Dole campaign strategists (who understood the new message amounted to an admission that their candidate had no chance), Republican operatives did embrace that “no blank check” message, even investing what one longtime operative now calls “a lot of money pushing that message in the mail.”

That strategy helped the GOP limit its losses to only three House seats and maintain control of the chamber. The party even gained two Senate seats, increasing its majority from 53-47 to 55-45.

With President Donald Trump trailing badly now, it’s at least reasonable to ask whether a “no blank check” strategy option is available to Republicans once again this year.

Clinton vs. Dole in 1996: Dole resigned his Senate seat on June 11, 1996, to focus on his presidential run, but by then he was trailing Clinton by double digits. While Dole was short on cash, Clinton had plenty of money and defined the GOP challenger early.

Gallup’s June 18-19 two-day rolling average showed Clinton leading by 19 points, 57% to 38%. A July 25-28 three-day rolling average found Clinton ahead by 18 points, 57% to 39%.

Labor Day didn’t fundamentally change the shape of the race, which included businessman Ross Perot running again as an independent.

A Sept. 10-12 CNN/USA Today/Gallup tracking poll of likely voters showed Clinton leading with 55%, followed by Dole (32%) and Perot (6%).

Throughout the fall, Dole gained a few points and then lost them, but the Republican challenger never changed the contest’s trajectory.

For example, on Oct. 14-15, the race allegedly “closed” to 9 points, 48% to 39%, with Perot at 5%. But just a few days later, Oct. 18-19, Clinton was back up by 19 points, 54% to 35%, with Perot at 6%.

Clinton maintained a double-digit lead all the way to Election Day, when he won by more than 8 points and buried Dole in electoral votes, 379 to 159.

But GOP strategists knew early on that Dole was an albatross around the neck of their congressional candidates, which is why the RNC bankrolled the “don’t give Democrats a blank check” message.

A Sept. 6-8 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed Clinton beating Dole 55% to 34%, but when respondents in the same poll were asked “If Bill Clinton is re-elected president in November, which party would you prefer to have in control of Congress — the Republican party or the Democratic party,” they preferred the GOP 47% to 44%.

CNN/USA Today/Gallup asked the same question twice in late October, each time finding that while voters overwhelmingly preferred Clinton for president, they were split evenly on which party they wanted to control Congress.

In the end, and despite angry phone calls from the Dole campaign, the RNC and the NRCC decided to try to save their congressional majorities.

Trump and Biden in 2020: If Trump is trailing badly in mid-October — not at all a certainty — is the “no blank check” message an option that GOP strategists might consider? Interviews with a number of Republican operatives and strategists produced responses that ranged from “unlikely” to “absolutely not.”

There is widespread agreement that the party, voters and national politics have changed so dramatically over the past two decades that such a strategy would be unthinkable in an era of polarization and anger.

Insiders argue that between one-third and one-half of Trump voters have little allegiance to the Republican Party. They are loyal to Trump and distrust GOP leaders. Many would surely see a “no blank check” campaign as a surrender by the Republican political establishment.

Part of Trump’s appeal to those voters is that he is tough, will hit back twice as hard when he is attacked, and will never quit as he fights against the “dangerous” Democratic Party, which is filled with Marxists and anarchists.

“Lots of Trump voters like him because they don’t see him as a Republican. Our coalition is more fragile than it was in 1996,” one GOP strategist told me.

In 1996, few Republican voters had a strong personal allegiance to Dole.

Republican strategists believe that throwing Trump under the bus would create a grassroots groundswell against the party in November, costing them more, not fewer, House and Senate seats as Trump voters bypass down-ballot contests.

Observers also note that Trump might well interject himself into the controversy, even attacking Republican campaign staffers, strategists and candidates, thereby adding to the party’s woes.

Finally, there is a huge structural difference between 1996 and 2020. Unlike Trump this year, Dole was not the incumbent president. That gave the RNC more independence than it has this cycle.

One longtime Republican strategist I talked with emphasized that the committee “never did anything against Dole, never said anything critical. But (it) moved resources because (it) could see that ‘Don’t give Clinton a blank check’ was such a powerful message.”

Trump’s incumbency makes the RNC little more than an appendage of his reelection campaign, giving the committee much less freedom than it had in 1996 under Barbour, a political heavyweight in his own right.

The GOP House and Senate campaign committees might be in a better position to push the “no blank check” message, but they appear more nervous about angering Trump than finding a strategy that might maximize outcomes.

The bottom line: Republicans tried to use the “no blank check” message in 2008 (to save North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole and defeat Louisiana Sen. Mary L. Landrieu), as my colleague Nathan L. Gonzales noted in an Oct. 29 Roll Call column that year. Both efforts were unsuccessful and relatively isolated.

Some observers are skeptical that a “no blank check” strategy could ever work. They argue voters aren’t that strategic in their decisions. But these days, with the extensive media coverage and focus on politics, that may no longer be the case.

Republican officeholders will still try to localize where Trump’s numbers are poor or deteriorating — in the suburbs, for example — but that is different from running a well-funded nationwide “Don’t give Democrats a blank check” campaign.

While Dole surely hated the RNC’s message and strategy, the Capitol Hill veteran undoubtedly understood it. Trump wouldn’t. And that’s why many down-ballot Republican nominees will rise — or more likely fall — with the president in November.