Trump’s candidacy and win didn’t tarnish the Republican brand
© Greg Nash

On October 7, the public learned of a live-mic “Access Hollywood” video from 2005, with Donald Trump making lewd, misogynistic comments and describing sexual assaults on women. This put eleven Republican Senate candidates facing competitive races into a tight spot.

All eleven of these GOP Senate candidates immediately condemned Trump’s lewd comments. Initially none of them pulled their endorsements, but eventually some did. This was a tough political and moral calculation for them all. If they maintained their endorsement, how successful would Democrats be at tying them to Trump? If they avoided taking a position the question, would voters punish them as opportunists? If they un-endorsed Trump, would angry Trump loyalists punish them at the polls?

There were three categories of GOP Senate candidates on the endorsement question. First were the five who withdrew their endorsement: John McCain in Arizona, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Rob Portman in Ohio, Mark Kirk in Illinois, and Joe Heck in Nevada. The three candidates maintaining their endorsement of Trump were Richard Burr in North Carolina, Roy Blunt in Missouri, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, Todd Young in Indiana. Two others – Marco Rubio in Florida and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania – fit into a third category of vague non-endorsement.

Toomey never endorsed or un-endorsed. He stated he was undecided and finally said on 

Election Day he voted for Trump.

Consider him a non-endorser. Rubio’s endorsement was a soft support for the nominee but avoided saying much more. We can count him as a soft endorser.

Was a price paid in lost votes for un-endorsing or endorsing Trump? It is hardly clear.

Regardless of whether they gained a higher or lower percentage of the vote that Trump did, all of them won except Ayotte, Kirk and Heck. Everywhere Trump won, the Republican Senate candidate won, and where Trump lost, the Republican lost. Win or lose, four of six non-endorsers either equaled or outperformed Trump’s percentages of statewide vote: McCain (AZ), Ayotte (NC), Portman (OH), Toomey (PA).

The only non-endorsers who underperformed Trump were Kirk (IL) and Heck (NV), both losing their states’ elections along with Trump.

As for the endorsers, three out five outperformed Trump, and won: Rubio (FL), Johnson (WI), Kirk (IL). Only two endorsers underperformed Trump, but they both won their elections anyway: Blunt (MO), and Young (IN). Mark Kirk in Illinois was the only endorser to lose alongside Trump, and Kelly Ayotte was the only non-endorser to lose alongside Trump.

Perhaps if Hillary Clinton had won the election, of course we would have seen more candidates suffer electoral consequences for backing Trump. But she didn’t win. We do know that Comey’s letter a week before the election took the pressure off these Senate candidates and allowed the GOP to make fresh hay out of e-mails. The Comey letter also came at a pivotal moment for voters. 

Exit polls say that 14 percent of the electorate made up their minds in the last week of the election, and most of those voters ultimately voted for Trump. If there had been no Comey letter, and the attention remained solidly on Trump’s missteps, would the endorsement question have mattered? We will never know. We might get more clues about how voters responded to endorsements as detailed state-level exit poll data is released.

All we can say is that back in October it was probably safer to un-endorse Trump, and it appears now that threat of a backlash from Trump’s voters against the un-endorsers was very minimal in the end. In a new Congress, a surprise new president needs allies anywhere he can find them.

It seems unlikely that a President Donald Trump will exact vengeance on the non-endorsers -- though as we learned on Election Day, almost anything is possible now.

McLean is Professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University. He is a contributing author in Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter, edited by Stacy Hunter Hecht and David Schultz (Lexington Books, 2015).


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