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 TrumpDems flip Wisconsin state Senate seat Sessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants GOP rep: 'Sheet metal and garbage' everywhere in Haiti 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 RyanGOP leaders pitch children's health funding in plan to avert shutdown Lawmakers see shutdown’s odds rising Fix what we’ve got and make Medicare right this year MORE (Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Overnight Finance: Lawmakers see shutdown odds rising | Trump calls for looser rules for bank loans | Consumer bureau moves to revise payday lending rule | Trump warns China on trade deficit 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 PortmanFlake's anti-Trump speech will make a lot of noise, but not much sense Top GOP candidate drops out of Ohio Senate race Overnight Tech: Regulators to look at trading in bitcoin futures | Computer chip flaws present new security problem | Zuckerberg vows to improve Facebook in 2018 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 RubioOvernight Cybersecurity: Bipartisan bill aims to deter election interference | Russian hackers target Senate | House Intel panel subpoenas Bannon | DHS giving 'active defense' cyber tools to private sector Senators unveil bipartisan push to deter future election interference Puerto Rico's children need recovery funds MORE of Florida and Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Senate Intel chairman: No need for committee to interview Bannon McConnell: Russia probe must stay bipartisan to be credible MORE of North Carolina.

“The fight is between us and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonIntel Dem decries White House 'gag order' after Bannon testimony 'Total free-for-all' as Bannon clashes with Intel members Mellman: On Political Authenticity (Part 2) MORE, not us and us,” he added. “Cannibalization is not a good political strategy.”