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Republican Candidates Calculate Whether to Cut Ties With Donald Trump

6 minute read

U2 songs are ubiquitous at any campaign event, Democratic or Republican. To get crowds fired up or inspired “City of Blinding Lights,” “Vertigo,” “Walk On,” and “Beautiful Day” are all staples. But for Republicans struggling to embrace Donald Trump as their standard bearer, this election the U2 song that might best reflect their angst is probably “With or Without You.”

This is the choice facing many Republicans up for reelection in November: are they better off embracing The Donald and all the controversy that comes with him—accusations of misogyny and racism and, take this week, Page Six gossip wars with morning cable TV hosts? Or do they risk alienating a fair chunk of the GOP base by running against Trump? Vulnerable GOP candidates must decide, and soon: Can they live with or without Trump?

With Trump shaking up his campaign staff again, rejiggering his campaign schedule at the last minute and facing more bad news from polls, the question has gained more resonance in recent weeks.

At stake is the Senate—and in some more improbable scenarios, the House. With 2.5 months to go, the Senate is leaning Democratic while the House is likely Republican. The University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato, Cook Political Report’s Charlie Cook and American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein all believe Democrats will eke out a Senate win, while the House is likely a little too far out of Democratic reach. (Most prognosticators estimating a 15-20 seat gain for Dems; they’d need 31 seats to take back the House.)

“For most of these candidates they’re screwed coming and going—they’re in a very tough place,” Ornstein tells TIME. “A good share of the GOP base is for Trump, abandon him you risk alienating a sizable amount of people you count on for your votes. Don’t abandon him and that means you own Trump … and all of the downsides that alienate the rest of the electorate.”

Which is why you see candidates like New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Arizona Sen. John McCain coming up with complex explanations of how their vote for Trump doesn’t mean an endorsement of all that is Trump. Those positions get tougher and tougher as other members of the Establishment abandon Trump. McCain, for example, is lonely in his support for Trump amongst his friends: his best friend South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham says he’ll write in a third candidate; his former top aide, the man who helped him write books and was dubbed “McCain’s brain” Mark Salter has written screed after screed against Trump; and the Establishment defense hawks, a group McCain once dominated, have written an open letter against isolationist Trump.

Republicans control the Senate by four votes and currently two GOP seats—Wisconsin and Illinois—are leaning Democratic and another five are considered toss ups—New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Florida, Indiana and Ohio.

The decision doesn’t have to be made now, in sleepy August when few voters are paying attention. Most likely, candidates will wait until after the first presidential debate, due to be held Monday Sept. 26, to make up their minds.

“To the extent that it becomes clear that Clinton will likely win, the argument that Republicans are likely to use, ‘don’t give Hillary Clinton a blank check’ will likely be particularly salient with those reluctant Clinton voters,” Cook says. “It doesn’t mean that these swing voters will support just any Republican because they see Clinton as the likely winner, they probably wouldn’t be inclined to support a Freedom Caucus or Tea Party-type Republican, but one that comes across that would be a responsible check on a President Clinton—there is a decent chance they will support that kind of Republican. That is the reason that there is still a fair chance that Republicans can hold onto the Senate even if Clinton wins.”

A lot will also depend on the size of a potential Clinton win. “Ayotte, [Ohio Sen. Rob] Portman and [Pennsylvania Sen. Pat] Toomey can win even if Trump loses their states by a few points,” says Stu Rothenberg, editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report, which tracks congressional elections. “But if he loses by 15 points, those down-ballot Republicans will have too high a hill to climb.”

Indeed, if Clinton wins 400 electoral votes, that could throw the House into play. If that’s looking likely by October, then the Republican National Committee could yank funding from the top of the ticket to bolster down ballot races, as they did in 1996 when it became clear in the final weeks of the campaign that Kansas Sen. Bob Dole was going to lose his bid to deny Bill Clinton a second term. The problem here is: Trump is no Dole.

“Bob Dole actually cared about his fellow Republicans in Congress, where he had given 30 years of service. He may not have liked the rescue effort in 1996, but he understood,” says Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “How will Trump react to anything he regards as disloyal or unhelpful? I doubt he’ll suffer in silence. He could tell his intense followers to seek revenge.”

Already, cash is tight for Republicans. Clinton has consistently outraised Trump, and the Senate and House groups responsible for electing Republicans have also lagged of late in the money department. That said, many big donors who aren’t supporting Trump plan to invest heavily in outside spending, such at the Koch Brothers who have allotted upwards of $900 million to spend on down ballot races, issue campaigns and ballot initiatives. On Monday, a Super PAC aligned with the House GOP launched to a $10 million effort to protect the House majority. And Politico also reported on Monday that Republicans have gained ground in voter registration in key swing states: Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Iowa.

“For now, those down-ballot Republicans need to keep trying to localize their races by talking about their accomplishments and their opponents,” Rothenberg says. “They must try to avoid being sucked into the presidential race. Demonstrating their political independence is always an appropriate strategy in a year like this.”

As Bono once sang: “Through the storm we reach the shore; you give it all but I want more.”

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