After a week of repeated allegations that Donald Trump sexually assaulted women at various stages of his life, top Republican donors and even some rank-and-file lawmakers are urging the party to fully cordon itself off from its presidential nominee.
Trump did himself no favors with this crowd this week: disparaging his accusers’ physical appearance, launching tirades against the press corps, and giving a more full throated endorsement of the notion that the election was rigged against him.
Watching from afar, a number of top Republican donors were aghast. One very high ranking Wall Street donor said that pressure on the RNC to cut ties with Trump “is intense.” As for the RNC’s chairman, Reince Priebus, the donor warned that “his re-elect [as chair] was on the line by holding firm” to Trump.
Trump has put top Republicans in a bind, forced to choose between alienating the vast number of voters devoted to the real estate mogul and the elite wing of the party that finds him repulsive. So far, they have largely sought a middle ground, denouncing the candidate at times while never fully severing their ties. But as the election nears and the limit of Trump’s political abilities and appeal become clearer, walking that line has grown much harder.
One Republican National Committee member told The Huffington Post that he advised congressional candidates to avoid an event featuring Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, out of fear that they’d be hounded by the press over the nominee’s sexual assault allegations. Other party officials have told HuffPost that fundraising for down-ballot races has been hit hard by antipathy to Trump’s presence on the ticket.
Mark DeMoss, a fundraiser for Mitt Romney in 2012, is one of the donors sitting out this cycle. He acknowledged that it was “perhaps” unfair to congressional candidates embroiled in their own specific elections. But his distaste for the top of the ticket determined everything else.
“I’m very distraught about it,” he said. “I just think it’s the most shallow, petty, immature presidential race of my lifetime. I’m 54… I’m not sure how we got here and I’m not sure where we go from here, either.”
DeMoss, the head of a major Christian public relations firm, said he would be more inclined to give to the RNC if it formally broke with Trump. “But I wouldn’t give a dollar to the RNC if it was a joint funding project with the Trump campaign,” he said.
The RNC, for its part, has already begun diverting resources to down-ballot races. This week, they transferred $4.5 million to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and $1.85 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee. But officials say they did so with the acquiescence of the Trump campaign and they continue to argue that there is no strategic rationale for abandoning the party’s nominee.
“It is job of the party to do everything it can to keep Democrats from winning office, number one. Number two is to fulfill the will of the people who determine our nominees,” said Sean Spicer, a top official at the RNC who works closely with Trump headquarters. “What do they want us to do? Tell me what it is that they want. What is that alternative they are asking for?
“It doesn’t make sense,” Spicer added. “If you are turning out a voter to vote in Ohio and Pennsylvania you don’t turn him out just to do certain things. And frankly if you talk to [Sens. Pat] Toomey or [Kelly] Ayotte, they won’t win unless they get the Trump supporters. It is a non-logical argument.”
But at least one GOP official involved in Senate campaigns says the party screwed up by sticking with Trump. “We should have dumped him,” said this official, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “It’s too late now.”
The official described Senate candidates as being left in the lurch as the RNC focused on Trump triage. The never-ending stream of damaging Trump stories had forced them to keep contact with those vulnerable Senate candidates literally every hour, every day, on how to best navigate their races. And without sufficient funding help, they’ve been overwhelmed on the airwaves. In North Carolina, for example, Trump has spent roughly $3 million on TV ads compared to Clinton’s $20 million, said this official. This week, Clinton’s super PAC, Priorities USA, announced it may start spending specifically on Senate races, too.
“We are getting freaking slaughtered in TV spending,” said the official. “It’s not like he’s got some sort of awesome ground game going on, either. He’s not doing any data analysis.”
The RNC, the official added, wasn’t returning phone calls at this point. “They’re fucking useless,” the official said. Senate republicans, the official added, were “the only thing that’s going well at this point.”
Even House Republicans, whose majority once seemed secure, have begun fretting over the ripple effects of a Trump implosion. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) said this week that he would place all his attention solely on congressional races. It was a nifty bit of misdirection, allowing Ryan to claim distance from Trump without actually reneging his endorsement. But it was symbolically important.
“I wouldn’t be surprised that there are candidates out there looking at polling numbers and coming to the conclusion that one of the better arguments they can make is they need to be a check and balance on Hillary Clinton if she is elected,” said Sam Geduldig, a GOP lobbyist who served as political director to the Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “It’s a good argument. It would resonate given Clinton’s poor polling numbers.”
The million dollar question confronting the Republican Party is whether such a shift will work. Even the mere appearance of abandoning Trump, after all, carries the risk of angering his base ― a problem that Trump defectors like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) are now confronting. But this is what the nominee has wrought: a party split between those who adore him, those who hate him and those who must try and hold their nose around him.
It’s a dynamic perfectly personified by one top Republican fundraiser who is backing the nominee. Watching an interview Trump gave with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly this past week, this fundraiser said he was practically dumbfounded.
“O’Reilly interviewed him and threw him 15 softballs that he should have hit out of the park and what does he do? He sits there and stares and denounces [Paul] Ryan and McCain. I was watching with interest and my wife turned to me and said: ‘I don’t know if I could vote for him.’ I said, ‘You’re voting for him!’ But it went through my mind: What if Putin insults him? Does he drop a bomb on Moscow or something? I’m not sure he is stable.”
“I’m voting against her because I can’t stand the woman,” he explained, when asked how he could possibly vote for someone he thought might not be stable. “But I think he is a jackass and I don’t think he’s mentally balanced.”
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