Donald Trump’s recent comments on illegal immigrants from Mexico are giving Republicans heartburn, but GOP senators are leery of criticizing the billionaire real estate mogul.

Their reluctance to rip the presidential hopeful for claiming that many Mexicans crossing the U.S. border are drug dealers and rapists could be used by Democrats who are aiming to regain control of the upper chamber.

{mosads}Hispanic voters make up a large portion of the electorate in three battlegrounds that could determine who wins the Senate majority next year: Colorado, Florida and Nevada.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on Tuesday dodged a question about Trump’s controversial remarks.

“I’m focused on fixing No Child Left Behind,” he said, referring to the pending education bill. “There are plenty of candidates in the presidential race who can deal with each other on those issues. I’m not going to get into it.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he disagrees with Trump’s characterization, but declined to condemn the remarks.

“My state has been enriched by the Hispanic influence. We’re a much better place. We have a close and warm relationship across our southern border with our Mexican friends, so, frankly, I just disagree,” said McCain, who is running for reelection in 2016.

When asked if Trump’s comments would hurt the party, McCain said, “I’ll leave that to others to decide.”

“There are serious issues involved, and they need to be treated seriously, and foremost we need to treat all the people involved with the dignity and respect they deserve,” said Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas).

He declined to characterize Trump’s comments as a mistake.

“I’m not running for president. You’ll have to ask [them],” Cornyn added.

Some of Trump’s rivals on the campaign trail have criticized the TV personality’s claims about immigrants. But Republican lawmakers aren’t showing an interest in going toe-to-toe with Trump.

The 2016 candidate is surging in the polls, attracting a lot of media attention, and he’s shown he likes to fire back at Washington insiders.

Establishment Republicans are growing increasingly concerned that Trump will be a huge distraction throughout the upcoming cycle.

One GOP donor floated the idea of barring Trump from presidential debates, and while some Republican strategists privately embrace the idea, lawmakers are keeping their distance.

Trump is famously litigious and not afraid to use scorched-earth tactics to respond to his critics. While his negative characterization of illegal Mexican immigrants has caused corporate partners to recoil, they have helped him gain traction with the Republican base.

Trump’s nationwide support has increased to 12 percent, according to a recent CNN/ORC poll, putting him in second place, behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. He stood at 3 percent in the polls when he announced his candidacy in mid-June.

Some Republicans worry that if the party excludes Trump from the debates or attacks him personally, the strategy could backfire by provoking him to wage a third-party campaign in the general election.

“The Republican candidates who decide to take him on and attack him do so at their peril and the party’s peril because the worst thing for Republicans is for Trump to go through the primaries and make a third-party run,” said John Ullyot, a GOP strategist and former senior Senate aide.

They fear a replay of H. Ross Perot, who at the very least hampered former President George H.W. Bush’s reelection chances in 1992. Perot won 19 percent of the national vote, and Bill Clinton was elected as the country’s 42nd president.

Over the last several weeks, corporate giants including Macy’s, NBC and Univision have cut ties with Trump. In Washington, prominent local restaurateur José Andrés has come under pressure to reconsider opening a new restaurant at the Old Post Office, which Trump is converting into a luxury hotel.

Trump has not backed down and pointed to the fatal shooting of a San Francisco woman last week. Kathryn Steinle was shot allegedly by a man who had a long criminal record and had been deported to Mexico five times.

A spokeswoman for Trump said she had no comment for this article.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said he thought Trump stumbled in his comments but defended his right to speak his mind.

“I just don’t think he has a lot of experience with presidential politics even though he’s been there a few times. He’s undoubtedly going to make some mistakes, and I think that was one,” Hatch said.

The Finance Committee chairman argues that Trump’s remarks will give other GOP candidates a chance to portray themselves in a more favorable light by offering a clear contrast.

“I think it will give other Republicans a chance to shine,” he said.

“He could play a very good role if he will. He’s a smart guy, he’s a very successful guy. I know him personally. I like him personally, but he’s a person who says what he believes and what he thinks. That’s something to be admired, even if you disagree with him,” Hatch added.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said Trump could have expressed himself more deftly but that he did not necessarily say anything inaccurate.  

“I believe the facts would show that some people, certainly not the majority, if they get in trouble with the law in foreign countries, if they can get to the United States, they can avoid going to jail,” he said. “And we know a huge amount of our drugs are coming across our border.

GOP strategists acknowledge that Trump is hurting their party’s effort to reach out to Hispanic voters.

“Undoubtedly it has hurt the Republican brand with Hispanics, but it will also give us an opportunity as Republicans to have a conversation with Hispanic voters about what it means to be an immigrant to this country and how we should do this in a safe and orderly fashion,” said Patrick Davis, a GOP strategist and former political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Democrats have pounced on Trump’s words to paint the broader Republican Party as hostile to immigrants. 

Hillary Clinton, the current Democratic presidential front-runner, told CNN in an interview Tuesday that she feels “very bad and very disappointed with him and with the Republican Party for not responding.”

Unlike other GOP presidential contenders, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has praised Trump for putting a national spotlight on the southwestern border.

“I salute Donald Trump for focusing on the need to address illegal immigration,” Cruz told host Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet The Press.” “I like Donald Trump. He is bold, he is brash.”

“He has a colorful way of speaking, and it’s not my way of speaking, but I salute him,” Cruz added.

Niall Stanage and Jonathan Easley contributed.

Tags Bill Clinton Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Jeff Sessions John Cornyn John McCain Lamar Alexander Orrin Hatch Ted Cruz

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