Enraged Republicans, including top party leaders, donors and strategists, are growing increasingly worried that Donald Trump’s erratic campaign will destroy their chances of winning state and local races this fall.
Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus was furious at Trump for the past week’s events, including the candidate’s criticisms of Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son was killed in the Iraq war, and Trump’s refusal to endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
“His head is exploding somewhere,” Republican political strategist Kim Alfano said of the GOP party leader.
Priebus was the impetus for a post-2012 election defeat autopsy on the GOP that advised the party to expand its base and reach out to minorities or face declining support. Trump ignored the strategy; indeed, he appears to have gone out of his way to alienate minority groups – and women. But Priebus embraced him anyway.
Key senators are inching away from Trump. And Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., says he’ll vote for Clinton. A former Republican Treasury secretary and national security adviser say they will too. A group called R4C16, started by two George W. Bush administration officials, is urging Republicans to back the Democratic nominee.
So far, there’s no mass movement of Republicans flocking toward Hillary Clinton, but many remain in a quandary over just what to do. The danger is that while more Trump controversies don’t seem to bother his base – “That’s just Trump being Trump,” supporters say – they could further alienate party leaders, lawmakers who face re-election and others.
Trump’s comments “have hit some people in a certain way and they feel compelled (to take) drastic action,” said Republican pollster David Winston. “But the question is, does the cumulative effect reach critical mass? That’s not clear.”
The New York businessman’s missteps keep growing. He feuded with the Khans for four days. He refused to endorse the re-election of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He appeared to seek Russia’s help finding missing Clinton e-mails, although his allies said that was just a joke.
A supporter and Iraq war veteran at his Virginia rally on Tuesday gave Trump a copy of his Purple Heart, prompting Trump to joke that it was a “much easier” way to obtain one. He suggested the election could be rigged. A top aide said President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were responsible for the death in 2004 of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, son of the Muslim couple that criticized Trump at the Democratic convention.
But the accusation had little substance. George W. Bush was president in 2004.
Trump, meanwhile, insisted Wednesday that all was well with the GOP.
“There is great unity in my campaign, perhaps greater than ever before. I want to thank everyone for your tremendous support. Beat Crooked H!” he tweeted.
We are organized. We are moving forward. The Clinton machine may not like it, but we are prepared for the fight.
Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort Wednesday on Fox News Channel’s ‘Happening Now’
It sure didn’t seem that way.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has supported Trump. But he faces a 2017 Senate that could swing Democratic. To gain control, Democrats would need a net gain of five seats, four if Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton wins, because the vice president, who also serves as president of the Senate, is a tie-breaking vote.
Seven Republican seats are seen as possible Democratic pickups, as all seven states voted for Obama in 2012. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., has rejected Trump. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., says she backs Trump, but won’t actually endorse him.
Trump appeared to be settling scores Tuesday. He withheld his support of Ryan, who has been critical of the nominee at times, and of McCain. But it was a politically tumultuous move. Both have been critical of him.
And of Ayotte, Trump told The Washington Post, “You have a Kelly Ayotte, who doesn’t want to talk about Trump, but I’m beating her in the polls by a lot. ... You tell me. Are these people that should be representing us? OK? You tell me.”
Others could be swept away if a Republican backlash begins cresting. In Ohio, embattled Republican Sen. Rob Portman has sent supporters to Democratic events to try and gain support, an indication that Portman doesn’t think he can win the pivotal state without Democratic votes.
In Pennsylvania, a Suffolk University poll last week had Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., trailing Democrat Katie McGinty by 7 points.
“National trends matter in down-ballot races,” said veteran Raleigh, N.C.-based GOP strategist Carter Wrenn. Most voters don’t know who’s running for governor, senator or other offices, but they know who’s seeking the White House. “As opposition to Trump grows, it will affect other races.”
It’s hard to know at this point whether Trump, who won Pennsylvania’s Republican primary, is hurting Toomey at this point. Toomey earlier this week said it was “inappropriate” to criticize the Khans, and has often disagreed with Trump.
“Trump was not my first, second, or third choice. I object to much in his manner and his policies. His vulgarity, particularly toward women, is appalling,” Toomey wrote in a Philly.com op-ed in May. But he has also said he supports the Republican nominee, so the impact is hard to figure.
“All the rules are thrown out here,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Massachusetts.
There’s evidence that the Republican march away from Trump is getting stronger. R4C16, a Republican pro-Clinton group led by former Bush administration officials Ricardo Reyes and John Stubbs, is seeking converts.
This year, the threat posed by Mr. Trump compels us to consider what many of us never have: supporting the Democratic nominee for President.
The R4C16 website, created by Republicans supporting Hillary Clinton
The list of prominent Republicans who have publicly announced their support for the Democratic nominee includes Sally Bradshaw, former top adviser to Jeb Bush; Meg Whitman, a major GOP donor and former California gubernatorial candidate; several top George W. Bush administration officials, including former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who served under George H.W. Bush, also supports Clinton.
Among the others: Mark Salter, an adviser to U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona; Maria Comella, top aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and to former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; and Hanna, a GOP congressman from New York.
All this could make it more difficult for a President Trump to get much done in a Republican-dominated Congress.
Congressional Republicans were already badly split between hardcore and pragmatic conservatives, making it nearly impossible to get much done.
Trump’s agenda does not fit neatly into either camp. “Who knows what his agenda is anyway?” asked Burdett Loomis, a congressional expert at the University of Kansas.
If Trump offers broad strokes, he could have a chance at getting meaningful tax reform and perhaps changes in Social Security and Medicare, said Chris Edwards, economist at Washington’s Cato Institute, a libertarian research group.
Ryan has offered detailed proposals, and while Trump has not explicitly expressed support, he’d be expected to go along.
Maybe. “Trump’s erratic behavior could undermine those efforts,” Edwards said.