By Alexander Bolton - 09/14/15 06:00 AM EDT
Republican senators, the heart of the GOP establishment, will support Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump, Lester Holt battle over Trump's Iraq War record Trump spars with Clinton, Holt over Iraq war support Clinton: Trump started his political career 'based on this racist lie' MORE if he wins the nomination for president, even though they’re not thrilled at the prospect.
Trump has become a headache for Republican leaders in Washington, who question his electability but won’t criticize him publicly, because he’s popular with the base and they fear he may wage a third-party bid.
“It’s hard to predict because a lot of things happen between now and then, but I certainly would support the nominee, no matter who it is,” said Sen. John McCainJohn McCainOvernight Defense: Debate night is here | Senate sets vote on 9/11 veto override | Kerry, McCain spar over Syria Kerry fires back at McCain: I'm not 'delusional' House to vote on ObamaCare mandate exemption Tuesday MORE (Ariz.), the 2008 GOP nominee whose war record and imprisonment in Vietnam were mocked over the summer by Trump.
“I can’t see myself saying a Democratic candidate would be better for the country,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Republicans for much of the summer have been more worried about whether Trump would back the party’s nominee.
But as the business mogul’s lead in polls has grown higher, Republicans have had to ponder how they’ll handle the possibility of Trump winning the race.
Even the most prudent senators say they would back him in the general election.
“I intend to,” said Sen. Rob PortmanRob PortmanDems kill more ads in Ohio Senate rivals gear up for debates Funding bill includes million for opioid crisis MORE (R), who faces a tough re-election in Ohio, a swing state and presidential battleground. “I guess you could come up with some scenario where something crazy could happen, but I think the country’s in trouble and I think if we don’t have new leadership and new policies, it’s hard to imagine it getting back on track.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who ran for president in 1996 and 2000, said, “I have always supported the presidential nominee.”
But he left himself a bit of wiggle room.
“That’s as far as I’m going on presidential politics,” he added.
No members of the Senate have endorsed Trump, though Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) was seen at a Trump rally in Alabama wearing one of the candidate’s “Make America Great Again” hats and has talked to him about immigration.
Sessions told reporters after meeting Trump on Wednesday that he is yet to make any endorsements in the 2016 presidential primary. They discussed immigration and trade policy.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has endorsed Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) for president, declined to get drawn into a discussion about Trump in a CNN interview aired Friday.
He only noted that Trump contributed to his re-election campaign in 2014.
“I appreciate it,” he said.
Aside from a handful of state legislators from New Hampshire and South Carolina, Trump’s biggest endorsements have come from celebrities such as former NFL star Terrell Owens, former NBA champ Dennis Rodman, bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno and billionaire investor Carl Icahn.
Conservative author Ann Coulter is one of the few prominent political voices to praise him.
Inside-the-Beltway Republicans are generally worried he would be a weak general-election candidate, because his numbers are soft with women and Hispanics.
A Gallup poll from mid-August showed he had only a 40-percent favorable rating among Republican and Republican-leaning women.
A new CNN/ORC poll released Friday, however, showed that he increased his share of support among GOP women to 30 percent, up 10 points from a month ago.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll from early September showed 82 percent of Hispanics viewed him unfavorably and 68 percent felt strongly negative.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, has a slight lead over Trump in an average of polls going back to mid-August, although the gap has narrowed significantly since early August, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls.
This may help establishment Republicans get more comfortable with the notion of Trump as their standard bearer, something that seemed laughable a few months ago.
“Trump from week to week has outperformed what anybody in the establishment would have predicted, and now he’s in a dead heat with Hillary Clinton, so there’s not much of a downside for a Donald Trump [general-election] candidacy,” said John Ullyot, a GOP strategist and former senior Senate aide.
“In a general election, if he is the nominee, the rest of the party will fall in behind him as the alternative to Clinton. Whatever misgivings they have, they’ll get behind him,” he added.
A Senate Republican aide predicted senators and members of the House will begin to endorse Trump if he maintains his strong standing in the polls. Many are waiting for the field to shake out, remembering that former Texas Gov. Rick Perry led the presidential pack in December of 2011.
“I think Trump will start getting more endorsements as we get deeper into the process. It’s so volatile that people are sitting on the sidelines,” the aide said.