Sen. Kelly Ayotte (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Assuming that Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, Democrats can win the Senate majority with a net four-seat pickup (Sen. Tim Kaine as VP would then break 50-50 tie votes). With Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) enjoying double-digit leads against both weak Democratic contenders, Florida likely remains in the “R” column. By contrast, the chances of Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) winning in states that will go overwhelmingly Democratic at the top of the ticket are diminishing. Ask GOP operatives and fundraisers (other than the Koch brothers in Wisconsin), and they privately will say these seats almost certainly cannot be saved.

If all this holds true, Republicans can only lose one more seat (or lose two but pick up Nevada) without ceding the Senate majority. If the presidential race becomes, as is quite possible, a runaway, the likelihood of holding at least two of the most critical Senate seats (Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire) or at least one with a pickup in Nevada becomes nearly impossible.

GOP insiders are keeping a stiff upper lip in Nevada. They argue that Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) a doctor in the Army Reserves who served three tours of active military duty, is a top-tier candidate running against an untested opponent, Catherine Cortez Masto. The race is essentially a dead heat; Charlie Cook rates it a tossup.

The GOP candidates are attempting to localize their races (e.g. focus on anti-opioid legislation) and slam their opponents (e.g. Sen. Rob Portman is going after Democrat Ted Strickland’s record as governor). Outside groups such as American Crossroads are helping out with their own negative barrage against the Democratic candidates, but unlike the GOP incumbents themselves — who would prefer never to mention the presidential race — the third-party groups also are straining to keep Clinton’s negatives high as a way to keep the race at the top of the ticket reasonably close. They fear that if Clinton gets a free pass and, say, builds up a 20-point lead in Pennsylvania, Sen. Pat Toomey, no matter how good a candidate, won’t be able to hold on.

It is far from clear that this strategy will work. For one thing, Democrats are already hammering Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Portman for nominally backing Trump. If Ayotte and Portman as a result have to more dramatically distance themselves from Trump by citing his substantial liabilities, Clinton’s margin may go even higher. Ironically, their own predicament may actually worsen. For another, voters already do not like Clinton (i.e. her unfavorables are higher than just about any other presidential contender in recent memory — with the exception of Trump); they just dislike Trump more. More negative ads and oppo against Clinton may have little or no impact. Clinton’s negatives are already baked in to the races, and she is still surging against Trump.

There are two alternative tactics. The first is an all-out ticket-splitting campaign in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Nevada. The second is a real Hail Mary — try to replace Trump.

As for the first, many Republican operatives are entirely convinced that ticket-splitting won’t occur in substantial numbers. The reasoning is circular. The normal pattern for years now has been straight-ticket voters; therefore, even in a highly abnormal election, they will still vote straight-ticket. That may be faulty reasoning. Toomey in a recent poll is running 4 points behind Katie McGinty, virtually unchanged from last month: Clinton, however, has soared to a 14-point lead in the same poll. Perhaps a concerted effort (Don’t give Clinton a blank check) may actually pay off. By maximizing resources in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Nevada and promising to hold Clinton to her more centrist promises and remain tough on the Islamic State and Iran, these candidates have a fighting chance.

As to the second option, it’s not entirely beyond imagination that Trump could be forced out. Politico reports:

Gordon Humphrey, who backed Ohio Gov. John Kasich during the primary, wrote a letter Tuesday to New Hampshire’s three representatives to the Republican National Committee — state party chairwoman Jennifer Horn, committeeman Steve Duprey and committeewoman Juliana Bergeron. He urged them to invoke a clause in the party’s rules empowering RNC leadership and Chairman Reince Priebus to replace its nominee . . .

Rule 9 of the national GOP rules permits RNC leaders to fill presidential candidate vacancies “which may occur by death, declination, or otherwise.” Humphrey argues that the word “otherwise” would apply to Trump’s case.

Likewise, the Associated Press reports: “Desperate conservatives have circulated a petition calling for the Republican National Committee to host a special meeting where Donald Trump could be replaced as the party’s presidential nominee. Organizers — some of the same Republicans who tried to prevent Trump from winning the GOP nomination — acknowledge the effort is a long shot at best. But fearing an Election Day disaster, they have appealed to RNC members across the nation in recent days to intervene.” GOP leaders en masse might finally renounce support for him, or even prevail upon Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to leave the race.

If Trump figures that his situation is hopeless and a humiliating loss is on the horizon, he might actually welcome an escape hatch. One could envision him declaring that “the fix is in” and blaming the GOP, which would be prepared to stab him in the back. In that case, he might jump before the RNC had to act.

That’s a really long shot, but the fact that it is being discussed at all is indicative of the panic gripping the GOP. Senate candidates have to figure out how to save themselves from Trump. GOP insiders think the answer is keeping Trump close. We would suggest that this is a fool’s errand and the better course is to run against Trump — or try to get rid of him altogether.