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Politics & Government

In Down-Ballot Races, Some Democrats Try To Link Trump To GOP Candidates

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

With Donald Trump the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, both parties are wondering, what could that mean for the control of Congress? Republican candidates for the House and Senate are trying to figure out how much to align themselves with Trump. And many Democrats are counting on tying their Republican opponents to Trump's brand of politics. My co-host Audie Cornish visited a swing district in California where this is playing out right now.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: We start at the Modesto Bee newspaper. That's where editorial page writer Mike Dunbar is telling me about the 10th District Congressional race here in Central Valley and the Republican incumbent, Jeff Denham. Democrats in Washington think Donald Trump's candidacy puts it in play. So I asked Dunbar, is Jeff Denham in trouble?

MIKE DUNBAR: Depends on how good a job they do painting him with Trump's colors. I mean, can you put orange hair on him?

CORNISH: Spoiler alert - Denham does not have orange hair, and he's not in this story. His office turned down multiple requests for an interview. But here's why he's a target.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF DENHAM: We've got to have a Congress that works between the two houses and puts bills on the president's desk. I'm looking forward to seeing not only border security, but the ENLIST Act and then, ultimately, we've got to get a pathway to citizenship.

CORNISH: That's Denham speaking on MSNBC in 2014. He's pushing this bill that would've granted citizenship to immigrants in the U.S. illegally who serve in the military. Jeff Denham's been one of the few House Republicans interested in supporting comprehensive immigration reform, not much in line with Donald Trump's plan to build a wall to keep people out.

But running for re-election, Denham has to walk the line between the moderate voters who put him in office and the party faithful who back the presumptive nominee.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hello.

BRET DE ST. JEOR: Come on in, you guys.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hello.

DE ST. JEOR: How you doing?

CORNISH: People like Bret de St. Jeor.

DE ST. JEOR: Well, I don't know how he's going to do that.

CORNISH: By that, he means Denham running as a Republican with Trump at the top of the ticket. De St. Jeor runs a business making metal tins and other packaging for food companies. He's big on deregulation, and he was not impressed with the immigration reform bills floating around Congress. De St. Jeor, now a party delegate for Trump, says anyone who doesn't get on board, should pay a price with Republican voters.

DE ST. JEOR: The way I see it, if there's a candidate that doesn't jump on the majority of the topics that Trump is touting and supporting, if a candidate is not on that train I believe the people will see that candidates as someone that's against it. And if they are perceived as against it, I think it's going to hurt them in a general election.

CORNISH: Democrats hope there will be another price to pay at the ballot box in the form of anti-Trump voters, especially in a district that's 40 percent Latino and agriculture is the main business.

What kind of trees?

DE ST. JEOR: Almonds. Want to take a look?

CORNISH: Yeah, let's do it.

Jeff Denham's opponent is an almond tree farmer. His name is Michael Eggman. We met up with him in his fields. He's also Latino and a beekeeper and on his second run for this congressional seat.

MICHAEL EGGMAN: I ran last cycle, and I'm proud to say I came closer to victory than any other Democratic challenger in the great state of California.

CORNISH: So what gives you hope this time around?

EGGMAN: Well, I'm running for the same reason that I did last time.

CORNISH: But are the conditions different?

EGGMAN: I think they are. I think people are even more frustrated with this dysfunctional government than last time. And now, you know, you have Donald Trump being top of the ticket. So that's a (laughter)...

CORNISH: And this is the part where he really gets going. Michael Eggman spends the next few minutes linking Denham to Trump over and over again.

EGGMAN: Denham's praised his campaign. He - Trump and his agenda don't play in the Valley - rejecting the Trump, Denham - you know, Trump calling them criminals and rapists. Denham and Trump are wrong on the issues.

CORNISH: Finally, I have to interrupt.

Looking at this race going forward, are you running against your opponent, Jeff Denham, or are you running against Donald Trump?

EGGMAN: I'm running against Jeff Denham, the same person I ran against last time who is sorely not addressing the needs of the people of this district.

CORNISH: Because you mentioned Trump every time (laughter) in almost every answer.

EGGMAN: Well...

CORNISH: You know, so that might be something he'd raise, you know - who are you running against?

EGGMAN: Well, I'm running against him, but when Congressman Denham supports Donald Trump and praises him in the press about the campaign he's running, that is something that voters here of this district aren't going to agree with. And they deserve to know that relationship that they have.

CORNISH: But how far can Democrats go with this strategy? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.