Republicans say party can’t afford to cut ties to Trump

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A sharpening debate has emerged in Republican circles over whether and when to cut ties with Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism MORE, who has shaken up his campaign team as his poll numbers have dropped.

While some in the GOP have called for Republicans to cut Trump loose sooner rather than later to avoid lasting damage, strategists concerned about control of Congress in 2017 say that would be disastrous.  

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The argument pits pundits such as Michael Gerson and David Books, against tacticians close to congressional leaders who have one priority: keeping the Senate and House in Republican hands after November.

The Republicans close to congressional leaders argue their party can’t afford to completely cut ties to Trump if it wants to avoid a disaster this fall.

“The bandwagonning [against Trump] that a lot of Democrats are trying to goad Republicans into is one way of ensuring that very good [Republican] candidates have an even harder time getting across the finish line in November,” said one Senate Republican strategist. “A lot of Republican commentators and analysts fall in the same category.

“They want to make the argument we have to stand up against this guy on principle. The problem with that is if you do so, you end up taking out really good Republicans,” the source added.

Republicans have to defend 24 Senate seats this year while Democrats only need to protect 10. Democrats will capture the upper chamber if they pick up four seats and keep the White House. 

Gerson, a senior aide to President George W. Bush and columnist for The Washington Post, and Brooks, a conservative columnist for The New York Times, have loudly called on Republicans to distance themselves from Trump.   

Gerson warned on Monday that “Trump may cost the GOP a generation of voters.”

He urged party leaders such as Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanSenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Kelly lobbied Republicans to rebuke Trump after Putin press conference: report Lobbying world MORE (Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | GOP looks to reassure NATO | Mattis open to meeting Russian counterpart Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash House passes bipartisan bill to boost business investment MORE (Ky.) to consider that at some schools with large minority populations, chanting Trump is viewed as a racial taunt.

Earlier in the year, Gerson wrote that if Priebus endorsed Trump’s nomination, “it would turn the sins of Trump in to the sins of the GOP” and squander the party’s legacy in a “squalid and hopeless political effort.”

Brooks warned earlier this month that Republicans who refuse to disavow Trump “are being sucked down a nihilistic whirlpool.”

“If you’re not in revolt, you’re in cahoots. When this period and your name are mentioned, decades hence, your grandkids will look away in shame,” he wrote.

The two are hardly alone.

Other GOP pundits such as MSNBC host Joe Scarborough have questioned whether Republicans are damaging their party with Trump.

Former Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber, who served as a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, told Bloomberg Politics earlier this month that he would prefer that Trump loses to Clinton.

He argued that Trump is “contrary to the spirit of Republicanism” and will hurt candidates down ballot.

Republican strategists on the ground in key states, however, say the handwringing over Trump is a Washington parlor game that ultimately could cost Senate candidates.

“Those guys live in a world where all they do is talk about Trump, the impact of Trump and the future of the party. Voters, vis a vis their own needs, aren’t thinking about the future of the Republican Party,” said another GOP strategist.

“Candidates should disavow things they disagree with Trump on but they should focus on their own races. They should focus on their own voters more than the future of their party,” the source added.

Republicans in this camp say turning off the party from the presidential nominee will only depress GOP turnout in November. Mass Republican defections from Trump can mean the difference between him losing a key battleground by 3-4 points or by 8-9 points.

Strategists in both parties say vulnerable incumbents such as Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanTrump seeks to quell Russia furor GOP moderates hint at smooth confirmation ahead for Kavanaugh Sens introduce bipartisan bill matching Zinke proposed maintenance backlog fix MORE of Ohio and Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania can run up to 5 points ahead of Trump on Election Day, but making up a gap of 6-10 points is much harder.

There are signs that Trump is seeking to help his party by adopting a different tone.

He has stayed away from divisive remarks at campaign events and on Twitter this week, and he expressed regret in a Thursday night speech for remarks that had caused “personal pain.”

Trump also shook up his campaign by bringing in a Breitbart News executive as his campaign CEO on Wednesday. Campaign chairman Paul Manafort resigned on Friday.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page on Sunday pressed Republican leaders to drop Trump if his campaign does not show considerable improvement by Labor Day.

“If they can’t get Mr. Trump to change his act by Labor Day, the GOP will have no choice but to write off the nominee as hopeless and focus on salvaging the Senate and House and other down-ballot races,” the paper wrote.

But Chip Saltsman, a GOP strategist who advised former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign this year, said it’s odd by historical standards to view Labor Day as the drop-dead deadline to turn around Trump’s campaign. Traditionally, Labor Day is seen as the date when many people begin paying serious attention to presidential politics.

“Labor Day is the traditional starting line for some people and they’re talking about it as the finish line,” he said. “How many times have we seen polls move up and down dramatically?”

Saltsman said if Republicans disavow Trump, “it makes it tougher” for Senate candidates such as Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash Senate adds members to pro-NATO group McConnell reassures Europe on Russia MORE of Florida and Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrChristine Todd Whitman: Trump should step down over Putin press conference GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki GOP Intel chairman: Trump should recognize Putin lies MORE of North Carolina.

“The fight is between us and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | GOP looks to reassure NATO | Mattis open to meeting Russian counterpart Dem pollster: GOP women have a more difficult time winning primary races than Dems Mellman: (Mis)interpreting elections MORE, not us and us,” he added. “Cannibalization is not a good political strategy.”