A day after Donald Trump’s vulgar boasts of groping women surfaced in a stunning video, Republican officials privately urged candidates to sever ties with the party’s presidential nominee to limit damage down the ballot, while a cascade of congressmen and women asked him to end his campaign and let running mate Mike Pence carry the party’s tattered flag into November.
The chorus of calls for the presidential nominee to take the unprecedented step of dropping out a month before Election Day reflected a growing sense that the GOP’s best hope of maintaining its congressional majorities was to cut Trump loose. But if distance was the new decree, Trump was having none of it. In multiple phone interviews, the beleaguered businessman insisted he would not quit the race. “The media and establishment want me out of the race so badly,” he tweeted Saturday afternoon. “I WILL NEVER DROP OUT OF THE RACE, WILL NEVER LET MY SUPPORTERS DOWN!”
And it is Trump’s call to make. There is no established procedure under which the Republican National Committee can revoke a nomination. After Trump steamrolled through the Republican primaries, the feckless and fractured party that grudgingly embraced him has few tools at its disposal to distance itself from the scandalous behavior of its standard-bearer.
For Republicans across the country, the path to Nov. 8 is now a perilous tightrope. Denounce Trump, and risk rupturing their frayed bonds with a grassroots base energized by his brand of right-wing populism. Stand behind him and risk alienating many voters for good.
One of the few men with cards left to play is Pence. Since being tapped to join the ticket in July, the Indiana governor has been one of Trump’s staunchest defenders, cleaning up Trump’s messes and vouching for his values and leadership skills. Now Pence—an ambitious social conservative who agreed to a shotgun marriage with a brash former reality TV star—has to decide whether to ditch Trump too.
When Trump was disinvited from a Saturday campaign event in Milwaukee by House Speaker Paul Ryan, the businessman asked Pence to attend in his stead. But Pence decided he could not defend Trump and chose not to go. Holed up with his own political advisers on Saturday, he issued a harsh rebuke of his running mate. “I do not condone his remarks and cannot defend them,” Pence said in a statement that was not written on campaign letterhead. “I am grateful that he has expressed remorse and apologized to the American people. We pray for his family and look forward to the opportunity he has to show what is in his heart when he goes before the nation tomorrow night.”
Ryan, the highest-ranking Republican official and the man regarded as its intellectual lodestar, is among the few party leaders with the leverage to shape its response to a deepening disaster. The House Speaker was among the first Republicans to condemn Trump’s behavior when the video surfaced Friday. But he did not rescind his grudging endorsement. And he steered clear of the mess during his remarks in Wisconsin on Saturday afternoon.
Party officials have their own choices to make. According to two sources, the RNC has at least temporarily halted new investments in its coordinated campaign with Trump. The decision was driven as much by concerns about putting good money after bad, as it was to give the party time to devise a path through the maelstrom. But the RNC is torn between its desire to save the Senate and vulnerable House candidates, and its efforts to maintain unity in a balkanized party. It is reminiscent of 1996, when party boss Haley Barbour cut off Bob Dole's presidential campaign in the name of saving congress. As early as this spring, party strategists were reviewing Barbour's blueprint for clues.
While he joined the chorus of critics blasting Trump on Friday night, GOP boss Reince Priebus has been one of the nominee’s chief advocates, working to marshal support for Trump and threatening former rivals who have declined to honor their early pledge to back the eventual nominee.
But the avalanche of elected officials breaking with Trump on Saturday suggested that down the ticket, the party has made its choice. Most prominent was the decision of Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 nominee, who wrote in a statement, "I will not vote for Donald Trump," adding that he had decided to write in the name of an unnamed conservative for President. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, another Republican running for reelection, followed by announcing that he could not support Trump, and would be voting for Pence, who is not now on the ballot alone. To add to the injury, South Dakota's John Thune, the third highest ranking Senate Republican, called for Trump to withdraw. And Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State for George W. Bush, made the same announcement in a posting on Facebook.
“Distancing is no longer a calculation,” says one major fundraiser for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “It is the official Republican policy.”
It was no accident that vulnerable Senate Republican incumbents like New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte and Senate hopefuls like Nevada’s Joe Heck were among the first to say they could no longer support Trump. GOP strategists said Saturday that the party’s Senate majority could still be saved. “The presidential race is operating in an alternate universe this cycle,” says Scott Reed, chief strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is spending heavily to re-elect Senate Republicans.
Within that alternate universe, a remarkable 24-hour period left Clinton's campaign glowing and senior aides to the Trump campaign reconsidering their choices. One of Trump’s most loyal advisers couldn’t promise this was the last they’d see of crass comments. “Once you flush the toilet, you can’t really stop the water,” this adviser said. It suddenly seemed like the whole party might be headed down the tubes with Trump.
There were other signs of problems to come. At Republican headquarters across the country, volunteers were hard to come by on Saturday morning. Donald Trump Jr. canceled a planned visit to Ohio State University to build support among young voters ahead of the state’s Tuesday deadline to register to vote. Trump’s typical cheerleaders found themselves calling the statements indefensible and there were signs that Trump may spend the next 30 days as a lone man screaming into the abyss.
Politics and pragmatism overlapped in the moment late Friday and early Saturday. Trump has been fading in some state polls, and his campaign has struggled to match Clinton’s machinery. An NBC News analysis of FEC reports found Clinton and her allies enjoyed a 5-to-1 staffing advantage over Team Trump, and Trump’s own ad spending took a cut last week. A Trump victory was already increasingly out of reach, and the Friday night implosion made the odds that much longer. It’s much easier to dump a loser who seems more likely to return to reality TV than someone who retains a plausible pathway to the presidency.
That’s not to say Trump’s woes guarantee sweeping down-ballot losses for the party. Three senior Democrats told TIME that there remains almost no chance of the balance of power to switch in the House. Two other senior party officials said winning the Senate—which requires flipping four seats—is a 50-50 proposition, at best.
On a miserable weekend, the GOP can at least give thanks for gerrymandering. The borders of House districts were redrawn with baked-in advantages for Republicans after the 2010 Census, thanks to the party’s stranglehold on state legislatures. While Trump is a drag on Republican candidates, it’s not enough for Democrats to imagine a case where they could poach enough specific races to tilt power. The gerrymandered districts were designed to withstand exactly the type of electoral wave that Trump seems intent on creating.
That’s not to say Democrats are standing down. They have long enjoyed strong fundraising for their House campaign committee, rooted more in Nancy Pelosi’s deep ties to donors than any realistic expectation that they’d stand a shot at a majority before the next redistricting effort is undertaken after 2020. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has raised almost $145 million this cycle for an almost impossible task, compared to the National Republican Congressional Committee’s $128 million.
The stunning—but hardly shocking—Trump meltdown gives Democrats what might be their best chance this decade of returning to power in the House. Down-ballot Democrats typically fare better when there is a presidential race to motivate on-the-margin voters; Republican faithful traditionally have the upper hand during midterm years when only the reliable older voters show up in November. “This is our one shot until the ‘20s. Think about that and tell us we’re foolish for trying,” says a Democratic aide who is helping to manage the ad spending among outside groups.
The Senate had slightly better odds for Democrats—and better candidates for Republicans. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio has been running a textbook campaign against a former Democratic Governor, and Portman has kept a wide berth from his party’s nominee. Others, such as Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois have been equally as distant from Trump and focused on their home race.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire finally said what her advisers had long known: She had no interest in being linked to Trump, but she didn’t want to go to war with the leader of her party’s ticket. During the summer, she said she’d vote for him but not endorse him. Asked during a recent debate about Trump, she said he was a role model—before asking for a mulligan on that comment a day later. When tape of Trump talking about groping and trying to seduce women arrived on Friday, it might have even been a relief, of sorts, for a Republican like Ayotte. She no longer had to pretend that she was fine with Trump as her party’s nominee.
Meanwhile, at Clinton headquarters in Brooklyn, the order went out quickly: get out of Trump’s way. He was his own worst enemy, his instincts were those of a neophyte, and he would only make this worse if left to his own ideas. The campaign mobilized its social team to show Trump’s egregious statements and urged people—especially women—to register to vote. But the goal was to make Sunday night’s debate the first time Americans heard Clinton react to the tape herself, in her own words as the first female nominee of a major political party. Clinton’s aides knew they had one shot at a devastating response and went to work to assemble it to perfection. They had no imagination that it alone would force Trump from the race, but they also knew Trump was going to be on defense—a crouch that has never served him well.
Some Clinton advisers were also preparing for the unlikely event that they would be facing someone other than Trump. The team tasked with focusing on Pence suddenly found themselves looped into senior aides’ email chains, just in case.
Until then, there will be no escape from the all-encompassing controversy. Ryan got a peek at the challenge he’s facing on Saturday afternoon, when Wisconsin Republicans held their annual Fall Fest. Hosted by Ryan, the event was at one time billed as a unity rally. Instead, it highlighted the divisions in the GOP. Among the hay bales, pumpkins, and tractors on display, a parade of elected Republicans took the stage and conspicuously avoided mentioning their presidential nominee. Instead, Ryan, Gov. Scott Walker and other local leaders plugged the state’s incumbent Senator, Ron Johnson, whose fragile candidacy Trump has further imperiled. Ryan offered only a passing reference to the “troubling situation” Saturday.
The House Speaker was heckled by Trump supporters in his own congressional district. As he spoke before a home-state crowd, shouts of “Donald Trump” rang out. As Ryan finished his abbreviated remarks, one Trump supporter, who held a “Hillary for Prison” sign, moved to the front of the stage to make his opinion heard.
"Shame on you,” he told Ryan.
With reporting by David Von Drehle