Senate Republicans wrestle with dumping Trump

Senate Republicans wrestle with dumping Trump
© Haiyun Jiang

Senate Republican leadership and vulnerable GOP incumbents are wrestling with the dilemma of whether to fully withdraw their support from 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.

They are weighing the potential impact of further party division on voter turnout versus the potential cost to the GOP brand if they stick with the party’s provocative nominee.

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It has become clear to party leaders and strategists over the past 24 hours that Trump’s chances of winning the presidency are less than 20 percent, if not less than 10 percent. Now their main concern is saving the Senate Republican majority.

Trump’s late-night apology for the obscene sexual comments he made about women in 2005 has failed to quell the storm, particularly over the graphic line about grabbing women “by the p---y.”

Democratic strategists say it’s too early to say whether Trump’s implosion will revive their chances in states such as Ohio and Florida, but they think it can make a difference in toss-up states such as New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.

The question for the GOP is how far it’s leaders should go in denouncing him.

“Candidates, officeholders, Republican leaders need to not just disavow the comments, they need to unendorsed Trump and they need to work hard to preserve the Senate, the House, down-ballot races, their own personal integrity and the integrity of the party,” said John Weaver, who served as a senior strategist to Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign. 

But other strategists say down-ballot Republican candidates need to look closely at the demographics and political trends in their home states and do what’s best for their own re-elections.

“Everybody is running a local race, which is what they’ve done from the start,” said a Senate Republican strategist. “Voters are looking for someone who can represent them and put them first, before a Clinton presidency or a Trump presidency. [Candidates] should say whatever is necessary to convince voters they will do that.”

While audio of Trump’s lewd remarks about seducing women have led many Republicans and pundits in Washington to write off any chances of an Election Day victory, voters may judge other factors as more important, the strategist cautioned.

“People are skeptical of Washington and skeptical of the press. Trump has used a tone that reflects that skepticism,” the source added.

So far most candidates have stuck to condemning his lewd comments, caught on a live mic more than a decade ago, and only two in top-tier races, Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteLessons from Alabama: GOP, throw out the old playbook The Hill's 12:30 Report Explaining Democratic victories: It’s gun violence, stupid MORE (R) in New Hampshire and Rep. Joe Heck (R) in Nevada, have said they won’t vote for him. 

But strategists in both parties expect more will move in the same direction as Heck and Ayotte.

“It’s Saturday. The floodgates will open, but slower than they would on a weekday,” predicted a Senate Democratic strategist.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcCain rips Trump for attacks on press NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Meghan McCain says her father regrets opposition to MLK Day MORE (R-Ariz.), who earlier this year looked to be highly endangered but has since opened a comfortable lead in the polls, announced Saturday afternoon he will no longer back Trump.

“Donald Trump’s behavior this week, concluding with the disclosure of his demeaning comments about women and his boasts about sexual assaults, make it impossible to continue to offer even conditional support for his candidacy,” McCain said in a statement.

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 (R-Ky.) on Friday condemned Trump’s comments as “repugnant and unacceptable,” but he stopped short of withdrawing his endorsement.

Senate GOP Whip John CornynJohn CornynMcCarthy: ‘No deadline on DACA’ NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Hoyer suggests Dems won't support spending bill without DACA fix MORE (Texas) said he was “disgusted” by Trump’s comments and “profoundly disappointed” the presidential contest has become a race to the bottom — but he also declined to call on Trump withdraw from the ticket.

Senate leaders are letting Republican candidates and officeholders weigh the scandal and decide for themselves how to react without pressure from above.  

But they gave a clear signal of which way the GOP leadership is leaning when Senate Republican Conference Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneWeek ahead: Tech giants to testify on extremist content Overnight Tech: GOP senator presses Apple over phone slowdowns | YouTube cancels projects with Logan Paul after suicide video | CEOs push for DACA fix | Bill would punish credit agencies for breaches GOP senator presses Apple on phone slowdowns MORE (S.D.), who is in charge of the conference’s messaging operation, tweeted Saturday that Trump should step aside and let his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceThe House needs to help patients from being victimized by antiquated technology 'The Wire' star: I'd prefer a President Pence because he's a 'simpleton and a puppet' Trump looks to steer UN effort on Afghanistan, with McMaster and Haley at the helm MORE, have the party’s nomination.

 

 

“That’s not just Sen. Thune talking, that’s a coordinated statement on behalf of the Republican leadership at this point and that’s a DEFCON Level 1,” said Ron Bonjean, who served as spokesman for former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and as chief of staff of the Senate Republican Conference.

DEFCON 1, or Cocked Pistol, is the U.S. Armed Forces’ highest state of alertness.

A growing number of congressional Republicans and GOP governors have either rescinded their endorsements of Trump or are calling on him to withdraw from the ticket entirely.

Bonjean said it won’t be as easy for Republican candidates to announce they won’t vote for Trump, however, given how many of his supporters remain loyal in key states.

“They’re going to have follow their conscience, but they’re going to have to go with what they think the voters of their state are thinking. If you’re in a battleground state like Pennsylvania you may end up walking away from the nominee,” he said.

“Some Republican candidates are going to wait and see how Donald Trump performs over the weekend and if there is any more opposition research dumped out there,” he added.

Senate Republican strategists had argued for months that it would hurt Senate Republican candidates to renounce Trump because they need him to run closely with 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 in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and North Carolina to give GOP incumbents a chance to win.

But Trump’s comments from 11 years ago are now seen as so egregious that the likely negative impact on female voters, moderate Republicans and independents is so severe that some GOP strategists argue they won’t be offset by any new voters his unorthodox campaign might bring to the polls.

Vin Weber, a longtime Republican strategist who advised Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns, said Republicans now have no choice but to renounce Trump.

“They tried to be loyal to the ticket and he’s gone too far and they can’t,” he said. “They should formally disassociate themselves from him and call on him to resign and announce they cannot support him.”

Weber has called on his party to dump Trump for a while, drawing barbs from other strategists who warned it would divide the party and depress voter turnout.

His advice is now looking prescient.

“It’s been so obvious that this is where it’s been headed for a long time,” he said.

But the question is whether it’s too late for Republicans to back away from Trump, only a month away from Election Day.

Democrats argue that’s the case.

New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (D), who is running for Senate against Ayotte, on Saturday accused her opponent of making a “craven attempt at political self-preservation.”
“Her words are far too little and far too late,” Hassan said in a statement. Earlier this week, Ayotte was forced to walk back a debate answer in which she said Trump was a role model. 

Tom Lopach, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Saturday that Democratic candidates won’t let GOP incumbents wriggle away from Trump so easily.

“The time for courage has passed and Sen. Ayotte solidified her role in Trump’s party long ago. New Hampshire voters won’t be fooled by this stunning example of politics at its worst,” he said.