Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump’s intensifying battle with his own party is tearing open the nation’s political map, pulling Republicans across the country into a self-destructive feud that could imperil dozens of lawmakers in Congress and potentially throw conservative-leaning states into his Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton’s column.
Democrats are moving swiftly to exploit Trump’s crumbling position in the presidential race, aiming to run up a big margin of victory for Clinton and extend their political advantage into the congressional elections next month.
Clinton’s campaign has concluded that at least two traditionally Republican states, Georgia and Arizona, are realistic targets for her campaign to win over. Republican polling has found that Trump is at dire risk of losing Georgia, according to people briefed on the polls, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Illustration: Kevin Sheu
Clinton now holds such a strong upper hand that Priorities USA, a super political action committee (PAC) backing her campaign, might direct some of its war chest into Senate races and begin broadcasting ads for those contests as soon as next week, two people said.
Congressional Democrats also hope to persuade Clinton to continue pouring money and campaign resources into states like Virginia and Colorado, where they believe her victory is assured, in order to lift other Democratic candidates.
In a signal of Democrats’ growing focus on the US House of Representatives and Senate, Clinton used a visit on Tuesday to Miami to attack both Trump and Senator Marco Rubio, whom Clinton blasted for what she described as his indifference to climate change.
“We need to elect people up and down the ballot, at every level of government, who take it seriously,” Clinton said. “It is an unacceptable response for Marco Rubio, when asked about climate change, to say: ‘I’m not a scientist.’”
Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, told reporters that she would continue to call out down-ballot Republicans.
Rubio, who has led in his re-election campaign by a comfortable, but not overwhelming margin, is among the Republicans whom Priorities USA might seek to defeat, if the group decides to intervene in Senate races, one strategist said.
Increasingly anxious Republicans have not come up with a unified strategy for containing the damage from Trump’s embattled candidacy, and several strategists and party officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said they were awaiting a new round of polling before settling on a course.
However, in a sign that Republicans now view the presidential race as a lost cause, several Senate candidates are preparing ads asking voters to elect them as a check on Clinton in the White House.
Yet Trump himself, having been rejected in recent days by dozens of Republican elected officials, has indicated that he would make any separation an exceptionally messy and painful ordeal for the party.
Trump on Tuesday morning lashed out publicly at two of his best-known critics: Senator John McCain, who withdrew his endorsement of Trump over the weekend, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, who informed congressional Republicans on Monday that he would no longer defend Trump.
Seething on Twitter, Trump called Ryan “weak and ineffective,” and described McCain as “very foul-mouthed.”
Moreover, in a Fox News interview, Trump mocked both men as disloyal, reserving special venom for Ryan.
“Paul Ryan opened borders and amnesty and bad budgets,” Trump said. “I think I’m better off, maybe, without their support.”
Should Trump continue deriding the leaders of the institutional Republican Party, it could have profound consequences down the ballot, potentially depressing turnout by demoralizing the party or leading Trump’s ardent supporters to deny their votes to Republicans who abandoned him.
However, there is little Republicans can do to control Trump’s behavior: The party’s donors have no leverage over him; he is relying largely on small donors and, at 70, he is not mindful of any future campaign.
The emerging dynamic might be especially toxic for Republicans in swing states that are also home to competitive races for the House and Senate, where the party’s candidates must choose between two unpalatable options: alienating much of their party’s base or standing behind a nominee who is unacceptable to most mainstream voters.
The voting bloc that especially concerns Republican officials are the right-of-center, college-educated voters who usually favor Republican candidates, but cannot abide Trump. These voters can comprise anywhere between one-quarter to one-third of the party’s electoral coalition.
“That voter is clearly not going to vote for Donald Trump, but if they don’t vote at all, it’s catastrophic for us,” said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist who is working on several Senate races.
The nightmare possibility for the party is that swing voters punish the party because of Trump, the anti-Trump Republicans stay at home and Trump’s base casts a ballot for him and then leaves the polls. Under those conditions, Senate races in places like Pennsylvania and North Carolina could fall to Democrats, while Senate and House races in places like Missouri, Arizona and Kansas could move to the center of the battlefield.
Already, Republicans view Trump’s sharp downturn in the presidential race as having jeopardized their majorities in Congress. A poll published on Tuesday by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found Trump trailing Clinton by 9 percentage points nationally and drawing just 37 percent of the vote.
No major party nominee since World War II has received a smaller share of the vote.
However, in an illustration of the bind Republicans are in, the poll found that three-fourths of Republicans believed their candidates should stay loyal to Trump.
In Nevada, the Republican candidate for Senate, US Representative Joe Heck, withdrew his support from Trump over the weekend and is facing a furious backlash.
Sandie Kirwin, a Las Vegas retail manager supportive of Trump, said she might now vote for a Democrat over Heck in a critical Senate race.
“I think of Joe Heck the same I do of any Republican not supporting Donald Trump,” 52-year-old Kirwin said. “I will never support any of them, and I will do what I can to get them out of office.”
However, other Republican-leaning voters said they might punish those who fail to denounce Trump. Several Republicans in difficult Senate races have criticized Trump in strong terms without coming out in opposition to his candidacy, including senators Patrick Toomey, Richard Burr and Rubio.
In Pennsylvania, Jaye Steuterman, a registered Republican and a real-estate agent in Doylestown, said she was still undecided on which presidential candidate to vote for.
Steuterman, 52, said she was deeply unsettled by Trump’s past comments about forcing himself on women, but that might not be enough to stop her voting for him.
“I don’t know what’s more important to me — that, or the fact that Hillary is a liar,” Steuterman said.
In the Senate race, she is inclined to vote for Toomey, because he is a Republican, but her decision to vote for him hinges on whether he supports Trump.
Even the drastic step of denouncing Trump might not be enough to shield Republicans from his unpopularity. In a conference call on Tuesday with the Democratic caucus, US Representative Ben Ray Lujan, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that party polling found voters drawing scant distinction between Republicans who endorsed Trump and those who abandoned him out of political expediency, according to people who participated in the call, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, because it was supposed to be private.
On the same call, US Representative James Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat, expressed concern that Clinton might abandon states that she is all but sure to win, but where Democrats are still locked in competitive races.
Clyburn asked US Representative Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, to contact Clinton’s campaign to ensure it would not withdraw resources from Virginia and Colorado.
“Most people think the House now could be in play,” US Representative John Yarmuth said. “There’s a little bit of scrambling going on to identify races that could flip if the presidential race somehow gets to a 10-point margin.”
Like their Republican counterparts, Democrats do not plan to make final strategy decisions until they receive new polling. However, they have already begun aggressively attacking Republicans, even as those officials retreat from Trump.
Three Democratic congressional candidates have started running ads this week that showcase footage of Trump describing sexual assault in graphic terms, from a 2005 recording.
New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan, who is challenging Senator Kelly Ayotte, used the footage in a campaign video on Tuesday, saying Ayotte recently denounced Trump only to “protect herself.”
Outside groups supporting congressional Democrats have begun to reallocate their spending to take advantage of the shifting environment.
The House Majority PAC, the principal outside group supporting House Democrats, this week made a US$1.2 million reservation to contest the suburban Philadelphia seat held by US Representative Michael Fitzpatrick, who is retiring.
In affluent suburban areas, which were already trending strongly toward Democrats after the first presidential debate, Republican survival might depend on the willingness of voters to separate their feelings about the presidential race from their voting behavior in all other elections.
Outside a ski shop on Tuesday in Aurora, Colorado, Sharon and Les Sparks said they were disappointed by Republicans pulling away from Trump, whom Les Sparks described as “spoiled little entitled brats.”
Among those lawmakers is US Representative Mike Coffman, a Denver-area congressman who has been critical of Trump for months and recently called on him to end his campaign.
Still, the Sparkses said they would vote for Coffman, despite their frustration.
“They need to unite,” said Sharon Sparks, 49, a project manager in the health industry. “If you’re going to be in the Republican Party, you need to start standing behind the party.”
Additional reporting by Julie Turkewitz, Kimberley McGee,
Jon Hurdle, Emmarie Huetteman, Jennifer Steinhauer,
Traci Angel and Amy Chozick
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