High anxiety for GOP

High anxiety for GOP
© Getty Images

It’s going to be an anxious 18 days for Republicans.

With the last of the presidential debates over — and polls showing that Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonIdentity politics and the race for the Democratic nomination O'Rourke’s strategy: Show Americans the real Beto Conservatives pound BuzzFeed, media over Cohen report MORE was seen as the winner of the final encounter — Republican Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDACA recipient claims Trump is holding ‘immigrant youth hostage’ amid quest for wall Lady Gaga blasts Pence as ‘worst representation of what it means to be Christian’ We have a long history of disrespecting Native Americans and denying their humanity MORE’s last, best chance to reset the race is likely behind him.

ADVERTISEMENT

That sets up a fortnight of Trump struggling to do anything possible to boost his flailing campaign — regardless of what that might mean for Republicans down ballot.

The GOP is worried about losing the Senate, and while the House majority had been presumed to be safe, anything seems possible in the volatile electoral moment.

“All existing data points to a blowout at the top of the ticket,” said Rory Cooper, a strategist and onetime aide to former Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorOusted GOP lawmaker David Brat named dean at Liberty University business school Trump, GOP seek to shift blame for shutdown to Pelosi Hoyer: Ryan’s legacy a mix of decency and debt MORE (R-Va.). “Republicans need to persuade voters that Hillary Clinton requires the checks and balances of a Republican Congress, and polling has shown they respond positively to that idea.”

Cooper, who has been clear in his opposition to Trump for some time, was implicitly critical of national GOP leaders who have stood by the party's nominee and funneled campaign resources in his direction.

“It’s been clear for some time now that the [Republican National Committee] and any other campaign entity need to devote every single dollar to the down ballot [races] and not a penny to the presidential,” he said. “Trump is incapable of restraining himself.”

The danger is heightened in some Republicans’ minds because they do not believe Trump has any great loyalty or concern for party colleagues. Even before the debate, one GOP strategist lamented to The Hill that Trump “doesn’t give a shit” about the rest of the party.

In the debate’s aftermath, Peter Wehner, who served in the administrations of the three most recent Republican presidents, expressed exasperation with Trump’s tactics.

“He is going to continue to descend into the dark world that he often inhabits,” Wehner said. I expect him to get more, not less, divisive — and it’s going to make it very hard for Republicans down ballot.”

At the same time, however, Trump is more popular with the party’s grassroots than some of the Washington leaders who have been most critical of him. A new poll from Bloomberg asked Republican voters whether Trump or Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAEI names Robert Doar as new president GOP can't excommunicate King and ignore Trump playing to white supremacy and racism House vote fails to quell storm surrounding Steve King MORE (R-Wis.) better represented their own views. Fifty-one percent went for Trump, while only 33 percent chose Ryan. 

Ryan recently announced that he would not campaign for Trump, instead focusing on protecting the GOP majority in the House.

The main headline from the third debate in Las Vegas was Trump’s refusal to say that he would accept the election’s outcome. His remarks ignited yet another controversy that other Republicans have had to steer away from.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainListen, learn and lead: Congressional newcomers should leave the extremist tactics at home Overnight Defense: Trump unveils new missile defense plan | Dems express alarm | Shutdown hits Day 27 | Trump cancels Pelosi foreign trip | Senators offer bill to prevent NATO withdrawal Bipartisan senators reintroduce bill to prevent Trump from withdrawing from NATO MORE (R-Ariz.), the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee, criticized Trump’s stance in a statement on Thursday. He said he gave his own concession speech to President Obama eight years ago “without reluctance.” 

McCain added,  “A concession isn’t just an exercise in graciousness. It is an act of respect for the will of the American people, a respect that is every American leader’s first responsibility. ... This election must not be any different.”

Also on Thursday, Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteFive possible successors to Mattis Mattis resigns, says views aren't in line with Trump's Election Countdown: O'Rourke brings in massive M haul | Deal on judges lets senators return to the trail | Hurricane puts Florida candidates in the spotlight | Adelson spending big to save GOP in midterms MORE (R-N.H.) told New Hampshire 1, “The voters are going to decide this election, and Donald Trump needs to accept the outcome.”

Both McCain and Ayotte are seeking reelection on Nov. 8.

Republican lawmakers who face no electoral danger this year have also been critical of Trump’s remarks. Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeSchumer recruiting top-notch candidate for McCain Senate seat The Hill's Morning Report — Trump eyes wall money options as shutdown hits 21 days Poll: Sanders most popular senator, Flake least MORE (Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamExperts warn of persistent ISIS threat after suicide bombing Graham: Trump should meet Pakistan's leader to reset relations State of American politics is all power games and partisanship MORE (S.C.) distanced themselves from the nominee almost immediately after he made his debate comments.

Trump and his campaign remain bullish, telling supporters in Delaware, Ohio, Thursday, “Bottom line, we are going to win.” 

But the realities he now faces are grim. He lags Clinton by about 6 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics national polling average. States that are normally safe for Republicans, including Arizona and perhaps Georgia, appear competitive.

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor and respected political handicapper, now projects Clinton to win 352 votes in the Electoral College. Only 270 are required to win the presidency.

“The election is over,” Tony Fratto, who serve as deputy press secretary for President George W. Bush, tweeted on Wednesday night. 

With no big scheduled events left in the campaign, it is likely to be a slog to the finish line for Trump — unless, as some Republicans still hope, some unexpected revelation from WikiLeaks sends Clinton into a catastrophic tailspin.

Republicans running for reelection are caught in a difficult conundrum: disowning Trump could cost them vital support from the GOP base, while backing him could alienate swing voters. Democratic candidates in both House and Senate races are trying to tie their GOP opponents as closely as possible to Trump.

But some of Trump’s most vigorous critics, including Wehner, believe the very future of the party is at stake.

“My view is that he wants to tear down the temple,” he said. “That’s what he is trying to do, and we have to make sure he doesn’t.”