Republicans locked in tight congressional races began mounting a historic stampede away from Donald Trump on Saturday, as top GOP officials deemed it untenable to run for reelection in battleground states while still supporting the Republican nominee.
After standing aside Trump during months of bombastic remarks aimed at Muslims, Latinos and women, sexually aggressive and lewd hot mic remarks by Trump in 2005 became the breaking points for at-risk Republicans. On Saturday morning, Sen. Kelly Ayotte was the first vulnerable GOP incumbent to withdraw her support, Joe Heck, a Republican running in Nevada, quickly followed suit. And there may be many more defections coming soon, party officials involved in congressional elections said.
“I wanted to be able to support my party’s nominee, chosen by the people, because I feel strongly that we need a change in direction for our country. However, I’m a mom and an American first, and I cannot and will not support a candidate for president who brags about degrading and assaulting women. I will not be voting for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton and instead will be writing in Governor Pence for president on Election Day.”
Heck, running for the Nevada Senate seat being vacated by retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), also officially denounced Trump and called on him to drop out of the race — a move that Democratic operatives predicted would sap conservative support from Heck and hand him a major disadvantage in his bid against Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto. Nevada, like New Hampshire, is one of the most competitive Senate races nationwide, and Heck has generally led in public polling against Cortez Masto.
“I accept that none of us are perfect. However, I can no longer look past this pattern of behavior and inappropriate comments from Donald Trump,” Heck said Saturday. “Therefore, I cannot, in good conscience, continue to support him nor can I vote for Hillary Clinton.”
The Republican officials said they don’t expect their candidates to be able to withstand a sustained defense of Trump after footage surfaced Friday of him making crass comments about his sexual exploits and seeming to make light of sexual assault. On Friday evening, every Senate candidate in a competitive race condemned Trump’s comments, first reported by The Washington Post, but none pulled their endorsement.
That’s increasingly likely to change as Republican candidates around the country wake up to face voters at events and Democrats accusing them of condemning a candidate that they still support for president. The Republican officials said most GOP senators and candidates in competitive races are now sending strong signals that they are “inclined” to disavow support of Trump.
“It’s going to start happening very soon,” said one Republican of rescinding endorsements of Trump. “People are going to wake up and say this is never going to end.”
“If you look at what all of our people have said I think the answer is pretty clear,” said a second Republican official, who added that it should be “obvious to everyone” that opposing Trump is Republicans’ strongest play.
On Saturday, GOP Sen. Mike Crapo, who’s up for reelection in the conservative state of Idaho, revoked his Trump endorsement. The fact that a Republican in a safe red state was so willing to pull the plug on Trump could put additional pressure on GOP candidates in swing states to follow suit.
“This is not a decision that I have reached lightly, but his pattern of behavior has left me no choice,” Crapo said in a statement Saturday morning. “His repeated actions and comments toward women have been disrespectful, profane and demeaning.”
Many in the GOP have resisted abandoning Trump because it could hurt their support within their own party. In statewide elections, Republicans viewed it as impossible to abandon their nominee because it would lead to bleeding support among conservatives.
But with the release of Trump talking about being able to grope and do anything to women because he’s a “star,” Republicans are under enormous pressure to cut bait — in anticipation that Democrats will release more damaging material on Trump over the next month. That’s an untenable place to be for Republicans such as and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), whose reelection contests are among the most competitive in the country.
Toomey has yet to say who he supports or opposes in the presidential race. A campaign spokesman did not return a phone call and email seeking comment on Toomey’s view on Trump in light of the new audio.
In Missouri, however, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told the Post on Saturday that he will still vote for Trump. Blunt is in a competitive race, but Trump has been favored to win Missouri.
On Friday night, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) released an unusually pointed criticism of Trump, calling his recorded remarks “repugnant.” That was taken as a signal by Republican candidates that they were free to do what they need to do when it comes to their nominee, even revoke their support.
“As the father of three daughters, I strongly believe that Trump needs to apologize directly to women and girls everywhere, and take full responsibility for the utter lack of respect for women shown in his comments on that tape,” McConnell said.
One GOP operative working on Senate races said it may be too early to decide whether Republicans would switch course, concede Trump will lose, and begin running as a check on Hillary Clinton. But that could change in the coming days, particularly when national polling would show the effect that Trump’s Friday debacle and his debate performance on Sunday has on his candidacy.
“As bad as this is, I think there is that other underlying fear that there’s more to come,” the operative said. “We don’t yet have the data from the top of the ticket that would reflect this. I suspect next week, we’ll see the collapse if that’s going to happen.”
Meanwhile in the House, GOP leadership sources said Republican leaders are telling lawmakers to do what they need to do.
“We basically said to handle Trump the way you need to handle him from the very beginning: Do what’s best for your constituents and your race,” one told POLITICO. Another House source said donors will demand that House Republican candidates separate themselves from Trump, who vowed Saturday to stay in the race despite growing calls from the GOP establishment to drop out.
House Republicans running in tough races began opposing Trump on Friday night, as Reps. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) both explicitly announced their opposition to Trump’s candidacy after the release of the audio and video. Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah) also said Saturday she is opposing Trump.
“Mr. Trump should step aside. His defeat at this point seems almost certain and four years of Hillary Clinton is not what’s best for this country. Mr. Trump should do the right thing and put country first,” Coffman said.
And some Republicans working on Senate races said Saturday that the Republican National Committee should consider shifting its attention to congressional races rather than pouring in millions to help elect a candidate with little chance of winning.
Even Republicans in deep-red districts were quick to cut the cord. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who had endorsed Trump before and is not in a competitive race, withdrew his support. And Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) released a statement Saturday morning announcing that she would not vote for Trump because his behavior “makes him unacceptable as a candidate for president.”
“As disappointed as I’ve been with his antics throughout this campaign, I thought supporting the nominee was the best thing for our country and our party,” Roby said. “Now, it is abundantly clear that the best thing for our country and our party is for Trump to step aside and allow a responsible, respectable Republican to lead the ticket.”
But Democrats battling House Republicans in competitive districts nationwide will continue to hammer GOP candidates by framing the defections as an act of self-preservation. Trump’s recorded comments are also expected to show up in paid ads from House Democrats soon, one Democratic official said.
“To finally denounce Donald Trump — and still not vote for Hillary Clinton — is not bravery, it is not principled, and it is not worthy of the voters they’re supposed to serve,” said Meredith Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
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