By Alexander Bolton and Mike Lillis - 10-11-16 06:00 AM EDT
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is advising Republican senators to use their own game plans to deal with a possible collapse of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump's campaign.
McConnell is telling vulnerable GOP senators to focus on their own states and races and avoid getting swept up in the controversy swirling around Trump, GOP sources say.
"We're advising the same thing we have all along. Run your own race. That has put us in the good position that we're in overall. Everybody is listening to people in their state," said a Senate GOP aide.
An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll on Monday showed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton opening up an 11-point lead on Trump.
Such an advantage could make it difficult for a GOP senator running on the ticket below Trump to win.
The GOP aide said internal polling was not available as of Monday morning to give leadership or candidates a sense of how much damage Trump's lewd comments about women, caught on tape 11 years ago and released Friday, will have on individual races.
Still, the NBC poll showing a generic Republican running seven points behind a generic Democrat was enough to spook Republicans in both chambers.
McConnell, who faces a demotion to Senate minority leader if the GOP gets shellacked next month, refused to discuss Trump at a local chamber of commerce lunch in Danville, Kentucky, Monday, telling the audience, "I don't have any observations to make about it."
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is also giving members of his conference space to make their own decisions.
But he has also made his displeasure with Trump clear by withdrawing an invitation for the nominee to attend a fall festival in Wisconsin and telling the entire House GOP conference in group call Monday that he would no longer defend him.
Trump has repeatedly put the two GOP leaders in a tough spot.
Neither wants to completely break with Trump, as some GOP members of Congress are seeking votes from Trump's supporters.
Other Republicans, such as Sens. Rob Portman in Ohio and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, broke with Trump after the release of the 2005 video.
Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) on Saturday called on Trump to drop out, the only member of the GOP leadership to do so.
Senate GOP sources say McConnell doesn't want to create problems for his Senate colleagues, who are either split or undecided over whether to withdraw their support from Trump.
House Republican strategists fear Trump's disastrous performance in recent weeks has put the House in danger of flipping to the Democrats, who need a net gain of 30 seats, which political handicappers view as unlikely.
"The generic ballot trending away from us. If it gets to 10, very hard to win swing seats even with a superior campaign," said a House leadership source.
Still, the NBC poll shows movement.
It found that 49 percent of voters favor a Democrat-controlled Congress while 42 percent want the GOP in charge, a seven-point advantage for Democrats on the so-called generic ballot question. Democrats had only a 3-point advantage in mid September.
Republicans are more worried about Trump costing them control of the Senate, where the party is defending 24 seats to the Democrats' 10. If Democrats pick up four seats and Clinton wins the White House, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York would be majority leader next year.
Ryan and McConnell may also handle Trump differently because while McConnell is solely focused on keeping his majority intact, Ryan is also looking at a possible presidential bid in 2020 if Clinton wins.
Trump's become so radioactive with college-educate white voters and women within the Republican Party that standing with him too closely is a potential political liability down the road.
Democrats have pounced on the damning video clip to inflict maximum damage on Senate and House candidates.
"What will it take for Republicans to walk away from Trump?" Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) asked. "What is it going to take for Republicans to discover event he barest modicum of decency and respect?"
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told CNN Sunday night that "there's not a dime's worth of difference" between Trump and congressional Republicans when it comes to policy and tolerating intolerance.
Some vulnerable Republicans have scrambled to put distance between themselves and Trump but others recognize that a clear majority of voters at home still favor him over Clinton.
"Every state is different, every race is different. Some states have a majority of voters who still support Trump, some do not. Every member is making a decision based on what the people in what their state want," said a Senate GOP strategist.
Ayotte, Portman and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said over the weekend they will not vote for Trump, as did Rep. Joe Heck (R), who is running for the Senate seat in Nevada.
Vulnerable incumbent Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) reiterated Monday that they will stick with Trump.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R), who is fighting to save his political career in Florida, stopped short of calling on Trump to step aside in his initial statement condemning his remarks.
Rep. Todd Young (R-Ind.) said Saturday he's not sure whether he'll vote for Trump.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R), who is running for re-election in Pennsylvania, where Clinton is beating Trump by an average of nearly 9 points, has not endorsed Trump and was careful on Monday not to alienate his supporters.
He issued a statement that denounced Trump's "indefensible and appalling comments" about women but also bashed his opponent, Democrat Katie McGinty, for not speaking out against Clinton's "disastrous policies."
A snap CNN poll published Sunday evening showed that 57 percent of viewers though Clinton won the second presidential debate but also thought Trump exceeded expectations.
Trump's bare-knuckled verbal assault on the debate stage Sunday, in which he accused his opponent of defending her husband's "abusive" behavior toward women, ripped her handling of classified documents on a private email server and threatened to put her in jail if he's elected, played to angry GOP voters who were itching to see Clinton confronted.
Christian evangelical leader Pat Robertson on Monday declared Trump the winner of Sunday's debate.
A Politico/Morning Consult poll published over the weekend found that 74 percent of Republicans want party leaders to stand by Trump.
The Senate GOP strategist argued that voters' concerns over the economy - an issue on which Trump has consistently outpolled Clinton - will be more of a factor in battleground states.
Despite their misgivings about Trump's personal values, they see him as more likely to bring an entrepreneurial spirit to Washington, which over the past eight years has presided over the slowest economic recovery since World War II.
"The question is who can fix the problems? It's certainly not someone who's been there for 30 years and hasn't been successful in doing anything about it and arguably made it worse," the strategist said, referring to Clinton's 25-year tenure in national politics.
Some political observers warn that dumping Trump before the dust settles on Friday's bombshell disclosure could backfire, especially if Republican voters think politicians are caving under heat from Democrats and the media.
"For the Republican base, Donald Trump delivered the attack against the Clinton machine that the Republican base and middle America have been waiting for, for years now," Joe Scarborough, the host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" said Monday. "And so good luck being in Pensacola, Florida saying hey, I'm off of Donald Trump or saying in Kansas, oh, I'm not going to be for Donald Trump anymore."
His co-host, Mika Brzezinski, said Republicans would look "spineless" if they had to reverse their decision to withhold support upon realizing his support among Republican voters remains strong.
Jordain Carney and Scott Wong contributed.