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National

Trump Looms Over GOP Senate Races In 3 Battleground States

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This fall's races for the United States Senate could matter almost as much as the presidential election. Republican control of the Senate is at stake. And just as the presidential candidates are debating this week, so are some Senate candidates. Republicans face the special problem of how they describe their relationship with their party's presidential nominee. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis listened to some of the debates last night. She's in our studios this morning. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, Florida first. Marco Rubio's running for re-election - Republican - faced off against Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy last night. And Rubio's relationship with Trump is that he was crushed by Trump in the presidential primary, missed the convention, but also endorsed Donald Trump, had to answer a question about that last night. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARCO RUBIO: I think it's pretty clear Donald Trump was not my first choice or even my 10th choice to be the nominee of the Republican Party. Fourteen-million voters in the Republican primaries chose differently. But one of the reasons why I changed my mind and ran for re-election is because I know that no matter who wins this election, you are going to need people in the United States Senate willing to stand up to the next president of the United States when they are wrong on policy or when they are wrong in their behavior.

INSKEEP: OK, so he's running for re-election to keep the president in check, who might be Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. How's that working out for him?

DAVIS: Quite well, actually, Steve. You know, there have been more than 25 polls in Florida on the Senate race since Marco Rubio decided to run for re-election again, and he's led in every single one of them. One sign that you can look to to know that Florida voters look at Donald Trump and look at Marco Rubio very differently is Marco Rubio's winning Hispanic voters, and Donald Trump is not. So it's been very hard for Democrats to try and paint them both with the same brush. And Marco Rubio's in the lead in this race, without a doubt.

INSKEEP: These are young guys, as Senate candidates go. Rubio's in his mid-40s, and Patrick Murphy, the challenger, is 33.

DAVIS: Yeah, you know, part of the weakness of Patrick Murphy, though, is that he is young. He is relatively inexperienced. He's taken some hits over him embellishing his resume. His father has bankrolled a lot of his campaign. And it's still proof that it's really hard to knock out an incumbent if you don't have a really strong candidate.

INSKEEP: Well, let's ask - let's listen, rather, to Patrick Murphy, who essentially challenged Marco Rubio as to whether he's going to try to run for president again. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATRICK MURPHY: Will you join me tonight in signing a six-year pledge that you are committed to serving this job and not going to seek higher office?

RUBIO: I'm going to serve six years in the United States Senate, God willing, and I'm looking forward to it.

INSKEEP: Sometimes this hurts people. Is it hurting Rubio?

DAVIS: It's not. And I think this is something that Democrats thought would hurt Marco Rubio. But in a normal election year it might, but this has not proved to be a normal election year.

INSKEEP: OK, let's talk about another state now. Ohio incumbent Republican Senator Rob Portman is trying to keep his seat against Democrat and former Governor Ted Strickland. And last night, both men accused the other of hurting Ohio workers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROB PORTMAN: And as governor, the loss of 350,000 jobs, taking Ohio to 48 in the country. Forty-seven other governors figured it out better than he did. And by the way, after those 350,000 jobs left Ohio, he left Ohio. He went to Washington, D.C., to cash in as a lobbyist.

TED STRICKLAND: You were George Bush's trade representative and budget director leading up to the national economic collapse. You had a lot more to do with job loss in Ohio and across America than I did.

INSKEEP: We heard - we heard Portman first. We heard Strickland next. Who's coming out better here?

DAVIS: You know, Rob Portman has probably run the best campaign of 2016. And part of that smart campaign is he's been able to redefine himself from a Bush-era economic adviser and a former U.S. trade rep to someone who is now seen as a champion against current pending trade bills and has earned the endorsement of many labor unions who traditionally support Democrats.

INSKEEP: Yet another outsider insider. Let's go to Pennsylvania now. Incumbent Republican Senator Pat Toomey is up against Democrat Katie McGinty. And they also had a debate last night, and McGuinty went after Toomey over his refusal to endorse or cut loose from Donald Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATIE MCGINTY: The senator is the only person in the United States of America who has not leveled with his constituents on this simple question - are you voting for Donald Trump? I'll yield the balance of my time back to the senator so that he can now answer that question.

INSKEEP: OK, what was Toomey's answer?

DAVIS: Pat Toomey might be the last undecided voter in Pennsylvania. He said - he has not said what he will do. He said last night, at some point, I probably will announce who I'm voting for. His motivation in this is very clear. He needs Hillary Clinton voters to split their tickets and vote for him, but he can't alienate Donald Trump voters, who are going to turn against him. So he's trying to thread this needle. Whether it's too clever by half for Pennsylvania voters remains to be seen.

INSKEEP: And let's remember that Hillary Clinton is leading in polls in Pennsylvania. Now, they also talked about the Second Amendment last night. Here's Toomey.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAT TOOMEY: When we had a debate this summer about keeping terrorists from buying firearms, I supported three different versions of that to try to find common ground, including working with Susan Collins, the only bipartisan approach. So here's the thing - Gabby Giffords, Democratic congresswoman, she's endorsed me in this campaign because she's recognized my leadership and the fact that it has to be bipartisan.

INSKEEP: Republican taking a centrist position on guns - why?

DAVIS: Politically speaking, this is all about women in the suburbs. It's almost impossible to win in Pennsylvania if you lose the suburbs. And support for things like tougher background checks are really popular among women there, and Toomey needs those suburban moms to split their tickets.

INSKEEP: Reminder that it's a state that was considered a swing state, but it's gone for Democrats a lot in recent years. Sue, always a pleasure talking with you.

DAVIS: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis in our studios this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.