Senate Republican leadership and vulnerable GOP incumbents are wrestling with the dilemma of whether to fully withdraw their support from Donald Trump.
They are weighing the potential impact of further party division on voter turnout versus the potential cost to the GOP brand if they stick with the party’s provocative nominee.
It has become clear to party leaders and strategists over the past 24 hours that Trump’s chances of winning the presidency are less than 20 percent, if not less than 10 percent. Now their main concern is saving the Senate Republican majority.
Trump’s late-night apology for the obscene sexual comments he made about women in 2005 has failed to quell the storm, particularly over the graphic line about grabbing women “by the p---y.”
Democratic strategists say it’s too early to say whether Trump’s implosion will revive their chances in states such as Ohio and Florida, but they think it can make a difference in toss-up states such as New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
The question for the GOP is how far it’s leaders should go in denouncing him.
“Candidates, officeholders, Republican leaders need to not just disavow the comments, they need to unendorsed Trump and they need to work hard to preserve the Senate, the House, down-ballot races, their own personal integrity and the integrity of the party,” said John Weaver, who served as a senior strategist to Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign.
But other strategists say down-ballot Republican candidates need to look closely at the demographics and political trends in their home states and do what’s best for their own re-elections.
“Everybody is running a local race, which is what they’ve done from the start,” said a Senate Republican strategist. “Voters are looking for someone who can represent them and put them first, before a Clinton presidency or a Trump presidency. [Candidates] should say whatever is necessary to convince voters they will do that.”
While audio of Trump’s lewd remarks about seducing women have led many Republicans and pundits in Washington to write off any chances of an Election Day victory, voters may judge other factors as more important, the strategist cautioned.
“People are skeptical of Washington and skeptical of the press. Trump has used a tone that reflects that skepticism,” the source added.
So far most candidates have stuck to condemning his lewd comments, caught on a live mic more than a decade ago, and only two in top-tier races, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) in New Hampshire and Rep. Joe Heck (R) in Nevada, have said they won’t vote for him.
But strategists in both parties expect more will move in the same direction as Heck and Ayotte.
“It’s Saturday. The floodgates will open, but slower than they would on a weekday,” predicted a Senate Democratic strategist.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who earlier this year looked to be highly endangered but has since opened a comfortable lead in the polls, announced Saturday afternoon he will no longer back Trump.
“Donald Trump’s behavior this week, concluding with the disclosure of his demeaning comments about women and his boasts about sexual assaults, make it impossible to continue to offer even conditional support for his candidacy,” McCain said in a statement.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell(R-Ky.) on Friday condemned Trump’s comments as “repugnant and unacceptable,” but he stopped short of withdrawing his endorsement.
Senate GOP Whip John Cornyn (Texas) said he was “disgusted” by Trump’s comments and “profoundly disappointed” the presidential contest has become a race to the bottom — but he also declined to call on Trump withdraw from the ticket.
Senate leaders are letting Republican candidates and officeholders weigh the scandal and decide for themselves how to react without pressure from above.
But they gave a clear signal of which way the GOP leadership is leaning when Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.), who is in charge of the conference’s messaging operation, tweeted Saturday that Trump should step aside and let his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, have the party’s nomination.