WASHINGTON – One lewd tape of Donald Trump bragging 11 years ago about assaulting women and getting away with it has upended a year of carefully laid Republican strategy to keep control of Congress.
Just days ago, Senate Republicans were growing more confident that they had built strong enough campaigns to pull out victories even if Trump loses in November. But after the widespread outrage over Trump’s sexually aggressive remarks, it is suddenly unclear whether they could ever insulate themselves enough from the man at the top of their party’s ticket.
Even House Republicans, who should be able to hold onto their majority, are now concerned that Trump’s toxicity could shrink their margin significantly in that chamber too.
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who early on declared he could not vote for Trump, said the latest Trump scandals hurt the entire party.
“It’s an open question of how bad the bloodletting will be,” said Heye, who said he has spoken with Republicans whose internal polling was already showing many Republican voters wouldn’t show up to the voting booths, and now that could be even worse. “For Republicans, there are no good options here.”
In damage-control mode, Republican candidates hastened to condemn the remarks, but not all actually withdrew their endorsements of the Republican presidential nominee. Many seem just as worried about alienating Trump’s fervent supporters as they do courting voters horrified by Trump’s remarks about women.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, who is facing a challenge for his seat, withdrew his support for Trump on Saturday, saying he would write in “good conservative Republican.” New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Nevada Rep. Joe Heck, a Senate candidate, both called on Trump to step down. So did House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who has been leading an investigation into Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, and Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama.
Other vulnerable senators are still standing by Trump, including Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who is neck and neck in polls with Democratic opponent Jason Kander, and Sen. Richard Burr in North Carolina, who is struggling to put away a tougher-than-expected challenge from Deborah Ross.
Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, meanwhile, has been locked in a close race with Democrat Katie McGinty, having never endorsed or supported Trump while declaring he won’t vote for Clinton. He issued a statement condemning Trump’s words but still hasn’t said how he will vote.
“I think everyone agrees actions like this are deplorable,” Heye said. “The challenge that Republican candidates face is how do they campaign in this Trump domination of all media?”
Some Trump allies tried to play down the impact of the tape.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump adviser, said in an e-mail to Bloomberg News from Rome that he is “not worried” about electoral effects on other Republicans.
“Hillary emails on open borders etc will drive voters to want to have a congress check (on) her,” Gingrich wrote, referring to the publication Friday by the website Wikileaks of hacked e-mails purporting to show excerpts of Clinton’s paid Wall Street speeches.
On Saturday, Republican lawmakers began trying to rally party supporters to turn out in November, even if they are not ready to support Trump.
“We need support, not just for the top of the ticket” but for Republican Senate and House candidates, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin said at a rally where Trump was originally supposed to appear with House Speaker Paul Ryan. Trump was uninvited late Friday after the tape was released.
Ryan, who spoke Saturday at the same event, made only an oblique reference to an “elephant in the room,” largely ignoring Trump.
Trump’s free fall is reigniting Democratic hopes of winning a more substantial Senate majority. In recent days, Democrats had started to abandon the Senate races in Ohio and Florida and redeployed money to Missouri and North Carolina.
Heck had an edge in the race to replace Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid in Nevada, Ayotte had a lead in the most recent poll against opponent Maggie Hassan, and star Democratic recruit Evan Bayh had fallen into a tie with Rep. Todd Young in Indiana.
At worst, it appeared Democrats would have the narrowest of majorities and face a brutal map in 2018, with Republicans keeping a large majority in the House.
That has all changed.
Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former top Reid aide, said he believes the presidential race is now effectively “over” no matter if Trump stays or goes and that Republican scrambling is now all about trying to preserve control of either chamber of Congress and other down-ballot races around the country.
“This is a potentially game-changing dynamic for both control of the House and the Senate,” he said. “The question now is whether Republicans are going to pay the price for their past support.”
Ayotte’s takes on Trump are as tortured as anyone in her party — she went from declaring “absolutely” Trump should be a role model for children in a debate a few days ago, to saying she made a mistake, to ripping Trump’s taped remarks in a late Friday statement, to withdrawing her support entirely and saying Saturday she would vote for Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, as a write-in.
Ayotte had earlier in the year said that she would support Trump and vote for him but not endorse him — a bizarre formulation that nonetheless encapsulates the pickle the billionaire with a penchant for vulgar and offensive statements has created up and down the ballot.
Heck, meanwhile, had previously backed Trump before declaring at a rally in Nevada Saturday that Trump should withdraw — getting booed in the process.
Until now, few elected Republicans were willing to go against a man who had the support of a vast majority of their party’s voters, and the political calculus was obvious. They needed their votes. When pressed, many of them would point to the Supreme Court and all the issues conservatives care about — from abortion to taxes — that they would lose should Clinton become president and get to pick a replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia and likely several more justices.
The Supreme Court was the top reason named by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who recently endorsed Trump after getting booed at the Republican convention in July for withholding his support. Trump never apologized for attacks on Cruz’s wife and father.
Others often cited Clinton as unacceptable.
But a new dynamic started to appear in statements that trickled out after the tape surfaced, with several Republicans concluding that Trump cannot win.
Many are now calling on Trump to step aside for his running mate, Pence, although there is no expectation Trump would actually do so and the machinery of a switch would be messy at best given that some states have already started early voting and printed ballots and assorted deadlines have passed.
Assuming Trump stays in, the question now is whether Republicans like Ayotte and Heck can still get the votes of Trump voters, outperform the top of the ticket, and squeak out victories with their party in chaos. Senate Republicans are well-funded and have been taking pains to separate themselves from the top of the ticket all year anyway. Many, like Marco Rubio in Florida and Rob Portman in Ohio, have boasted hefty leads and are far outperforming Trump, though both endorsed him.
On the House side, Republicans hold a 246-186 seat hold, the largest Republican majority since 1928.
Political analysts outside and within the party had been predicting before this weekend that Republicans could see a net loss of about 14 seats. But outside of those potential losses, there are a number of other tight races that could be impacted by the Trump, as indications he and his campaign was playing as a significant factor in House races in New York state, Colorado, California, Illinois, and Kansas.
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