High anxiety for GOP

High anxiety for GOP
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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 ClintonHillary Clinton labels Trump coronavirus executive actions a 'stunt' What Trump got wrong by pushing coal Trump is fighting the wrong war MORE was seen as the winner of the final encounter — Republican Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump suggests some states may 'pay nothing' as part of unemployment plan Trump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore Trump, US face pivotal UN vote on Iran MORE’s last, best chance to reset the race is likely behind him.

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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 CantorTrump taps pollster to push back on surveys showing Biden with double-digit lead Bottom Line The Democrats' strategy conundrum: a 'movement' or a coalition? 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 RyanWary GOP eyes Meadows shift from brick-thrower to dealmaker Budowsky: Why I back Kennedy, praise Markey Democratic super PAC quotes Reagan in anti-Trump ad set to air on Fox News: 'Are you better off?' 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 McCainBill Maher delivers mock eulogy for Trump Hillary Clinton roasts NYT's Maureen Dowd over column CNN's Ana Navarro to host Biden roundtable on making 'Trump a one-term president' 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 AyotteBottom line Bottom line Bottom Line 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 FlakeCheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama GOP lawmakers stick to Trump amid new criticism MORE (Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSeveral GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Graham says he appreciates Trump orders, but 'would much prefer a congressional agreement' Sunday shows preview: White House, congressional Democrats unable to breach stalemate over coronavirus relief 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.”