“Let’s Just Talk About Donald Trump Again”

Down-Ballot Democrats are running unimaginative one-note campaigns. Are they working?

Democratic Senate candidates Catherine Cortez Masto, Katie McGinty, Patrick Murphy, and Ted Strickland.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ethan Miller/Getty Images, Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Maddie McGarvey/Getty Images.

Sen. Marco Rubio dropped the oppo near the end of Monday’s Florida Senate debate with Rep. Patrick Murphy, the Democratic opponent he can’t fully shake off. All night Murphy had been trying to tie Rubio to Donald Trump. Over and over he would come back to the same line: that he couldn’t believe, could not believe, that Rubio would continue to support a man who had bragged about groping women.

This time, Rubio shot back: “You’re the one that posted a picture four years ago on Facebook of you groping a woman.” He was referring to this photo, where the youthful Murphy’s cupped hand is positioned conspicuously near a woman’s breast. “That’s inappropriate behavior.”

The Murphy campaign would say after the debate that it was a photo of Murphy with his then-girlfriend. But at the time Rubio mentioned it, Murphy seemed to have been wrong-footed. He awkwardly changed the subject. “Let’s just talk about Donald Trump again,” he said.

It was inartful, but “Let’s just talk about Donald Trump again” neatly summarizes the strategy of the Democratic candidates in each of the four Senate debates—Pennsylvania, Nevada, Florida, and Ohio—I had the misfortune of watching recently. The Democrats in each had their moments, but the self-limiting strategy didn’t move the needle against their well-prepared opponents. The debates were a reminder, at least in the cases of Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio, of the strength of Republicans’ 2010 recruits and why polls in these states show far more split-ticket voting than historical trends suggest should exist.

Even if the Democratic candidates were inconsistent and couldn’t produce any devastating moments—as New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan did in her debate against Sen. Kelly Ayotte—I’m not sure they’d consider the debates “losses.” As with Tim Kaine’s performance against Mike Pence in the vice presidential debate, the Democratic candidates seemed content to get edged out in round after round so long as they were able at some point to reference Donald Trump. This is the blessing and the curse of running against Trump in a down-ballot race: He’s a walking catastrophe who pulls your Republican rival into striking distance; he also narrows your vocal range and condemns you to unimaginative, cookie-cutter, one-note campaign strategies.

Katie McGinty had some painful moments in her debate against Sen. Pat Toomey, the incumbent with whom she’s locked in a dead heat, perhaps because she was focused so squarely on cornering him on Trump. You can’t really blame her. Pat Toomey is in quite the corner with Trump, and his strategy for the final weeks of the campaign seems to be to stay in the corner, take his beatings, and hope to survive. Pennsylvania is a lean-blue state whose interior Republicans—working class, small town—are very much Trump Republicans. Toomey negotiates this by not negotiating it: He still hasn’t taken a position on Trump. In the debate’s opening segment, after repeated prodding from the moderators and McGinty, Toomey wouldn’t budge, saying it was a difficult choice for him and he might make up his mind later. It was a fine segment for McGinty.

But after those 10 minutes passed, she had 50 more minutes to fill. She had a difficult time disproving attacks on her record in public office and a real foot-in-mouth moment during a discussion about police endorsements. When Toomey said that he had picked up every major police union or association endorsement in the state, McGinty responded that she had police endorsements, too. He asked her to name one she had received. She couldn’t. She also couldn’t explain specifically how she wanted to fix the Affordable Care Act beyond working to lower the cost of prescription drugs.

Trump and Rep. Joe Heck poll similarly in Nevada, and the state’s a toss-up in their respective presidential and Senate races. Heck risked base disenchantment by cutting ties with Trump following the release of the Access Hollywood tape—just days before his one and only debate with Democratic candidate Catherine Cortez Masto, who was preparing to eat his face off over that support.

Cortez Masto ate his face off over his prior support for Trump anyway in the debate held on Friday. Following President Obama’s playbook, she asked Heck how he could have supported Trump up to that point. “It is astonishing to me that for eight months, nine months, [Heck] was Donald Trump’s biggest supporter, when Donald Trump was attacking POWs, attacking Gold Star families,” she said early in the debate. “When Donald Trump was making fun of the disabled, attacking Mexicans, calling them rapists and criminals, and calling women names and denigrating women—which we know why he was, because he thinks he can sexually assault women—Congressman Heck had high hopes Donald Trump would be president.”

Once that segment was out of the way, Heck—whether one agrees with his policy preferences or not—was just more fluent on federal issues. This was a gap Heck exploited well during a later section of the debate when the candidates were allowed to pose questions to each other. “What, if anything, should the United States do to combat China’s territorial assertion in the South China Sea especially in light of the recent Hague decision?” Heck asked. Cortez Masto had no answer to this question, beyond pointing out that we needed a steady, non-Trump commander in chief to “hold China accountable.” Fair enough. It still would have been nice to hear a United States Senate candidate explain her thoughts on the territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

And yet I have little doubt that redirecting a question about existing foreign policy disputes with China into an answer about how Donald Trump is bad is the high-percentage play. That’s what made these debates, and makes these campaigns, so drab and flavorless.

For Democrats running in competitive races for federal office, redirecting any question into a criticism of Donald Trump is probably the high-percentage play. It’s absolutely embarrassing for the Republican Party that Donald Trump is its presidential nominee. He’s the reason Democrats are slight favorites to take back the Senate; he’s the reason they have even the slightest chance to take back the House. Everyone knows him, knows he’s a Republican, and knows he’s terrible. There’s more political hay to be made in Democrats pointing and gawking at him than in straightforwardly addressing any given question at hand.

That’s where Democrats are trapped in these races: adhering to the same, safe strategy of saying Trump’s name a million times, which keeps them close to their rivals but suffocates the strategies elsewhere that might reveal them as inspiring candidates in their own right, running their own races.

Unless the Republican candidates really do have unalloyed support for Trump, too, there’s a ceiling to what running against Trump earns Democrats. In Monday’s Ohio debate, poor, wholly uncompetitive Ted Strickland’s every other answer was about Donald Trump, and Sen. Rob Portman got into the habit of responding that Ted Strickland’s running against him, not Donald Trump.

It’s a stock line … but he’s not wrong. Pat Toomey, Rob Portman, Joe Heck, and Marco Rubio aren’t lying when they say they’re distinct entities from Donald Trump. They’ve chastised him when necessary and stray from plenty of his policies. Democrats are trying to force these Republicans down to Trump’s polling levels, and these Republicans are holding their own. Democrats’ next move is: Let’s just talk about Donald Trump again. And again. And again.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.