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Hillary Clinton increasingly pitches down-ballot Democrats

On Saturday night in Philadelphia, Hillary Clinton focused her attention on lambasting one Republican who she said “doesn’t have the courage to stand up” against bullies and shouldn’t win at the ballot box on Election Day.

She wasn’t talking about Donald Trump. Clinton was singling out Pat Toomey, the state’s incumbent Republican senator—who is facing a tough reelection battle against Democrat Katie McGinty.

“Pat Toomey heard Donald Trump insult a grieving Gold Star family who lost their son in Iraq. He heard Donald Trump call Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals,” Clinton said at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Park. “He heard Donald Trump insult African Americans, POWs. He heard him engage in saying terrible things about women. He saw him spreading the lie that President Obama was not born in the United States. How much does he have to hear or to see?”

As Clinton’s lead in national and swing-state polling continues to grow and she and her campaign look to expand the map heading toward Election Day, she and other top Democrats are beginning to talk less about Donald Trump and more about candidates further down the ballot.

If Clinton sweeps into the White House on Election Day, Democrats want to usher in a Democratic Senate with her—a goal that would require them to pick up four Senate seats this fall. While Republicans are defending more territory than Democrats and people like Toomey have been endangered from the start, current polling suggests a tight race for the Senate in which even one seat might make the difference in who controls the Senate.

Clinton’s increased focus on down-ballot candidates comes just days after the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA has launched ads tying Trump to Toomey in Pennsylvania and to incumbent GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire. They, along with other GOP candidates, have struggled with how to square their desire to support the party’s standard-bearer with the increasingly bad headlines about Trump’s words and actions.

On Fox News Sunday, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook dismissed the idea that the campaign feels it has the election in the bag and that Clinton is taking her eyes off Trump.

“Every campaign wants to win by the biggest margin possible,” he said. “So that would be great. But we’re not running away with this. This race is going to be competitive up until the end.”

And it’s not necessarily new that Clinton is appearing with Democratic down-ballot candidates as she travels the country: the Democratic nominee has campaigned with Senate hopefuls Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada, Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire and Ohio’s Ted Strickland, among others.

But there have been subtle shifts in tone and emphasis as Clinton reaches a more confident position in the presidential race—and the candidate herself told reporters on her campaign plane Saturday that down-ballot races will be a big part of her message in the final stretch of campaigning.

“As we’re traveling in these last 17 days, we’re going to be emphasizing the importance of electing democrats down the ballot,” she said, noting that the event in Philadelphia that night was a chance to boost Democratic candidate Katie McGinty’s candidacy. Recent public polling in the race shows a margin-of-error contest between McGinty and Toomey.

“I will be doing the same as we go from state to state as will Tim,” Clinton added, referring to running mate Tim Kaine.

And she did: when Clinton and Kaine arrived in Philadelphia, Clinton made an explicit pitch on McGinty’s behalf.

“If [Toomey] doesn’t have the courage to stand up against Donald Trump after all of this, then how will he stand up to special interests and powerful forces that are going to be trying to have their way in Washington?” Clinton said. “So it’s important that all of you do everything you can in these last 17 days to make the case to send Katie McGinty to Washington.”

On Sunday, campaigning in North Carolina, Clinton made an explicit pitch for the Democrats running for Senate and governor, Deborah Ross and Roy Cooper. Ross, who is challenging incumbent GOP Sen. Richard Burr, was initially thought to be the underdog in the race but has been buoyed by political shifts toward Democrats in the state this year.

At the event, a rally with the “Mothers of the Movement” in Raleigh, Clinton called Ross “exactly the kind of partner I need in the U.S. Senate.”

Part of that pitch also includes explicitly tying these incumbent Republicans to Trump, lambasting them for refusing to stand up to Trump’s rhetoric. Clinton did that with Toomey in Pennsylvania and with Burr in North Carolina.

“Unlike her opponent, Deborah has never been afraid to stand up to Donald Trump. She knows that he is wrong for America,” Clinton said. “She knows that people of courage and principles need to come together to reject his dangerous and divisive agenda. So please do the right and smart thing and elect Deborah Ross to the Senate.”

Clinton isn’t the only top Democrat who is pitching Democratic down-ballot candidates in the closing weeks of the campaign. On Sunday afternoon, President Obama flew to Nevada to appear at a campaign event with Cortez Masto; he and Vice President Biden have campaigned with and fundraised for down-ballot candidates throughout the year.

And Obama is looking even further down the ballot, too. As Politico reported on Sunday, the president will endorse approximately 150 candidates for state legislative races across 20 states. Those endorsements, the first of which dropped on Friday, will be coupled with other efforts including robocalls and mailers on these candidates’ behalf.

“This has not been a focus of presidents in the past,” White House political director David Simas told Politico. “But given what’s happening in state legislatures throughout the country, it has to be.”

  • Emily Schultheis

    Emily Schultheis is a reporter/editor for CBS News Digital.