When the bells ring in the US Capitol to signal an upcoming vote, reporters scurry down from their third-floor cubicles to the basement to wait for lawmakers who are ushered to the Capitol on a mini-subway from their offices across the street. The setup usually makes the politicians easy prey for the press—but recently, congressional Republicans have been trying to avoid questions, hiding behind aides and taking what I can only presume are fake phone calls, in order to avoid sharing their feelings about the party’s presumptive presidential nominee.
The hesitancy is understandable. On the one hand, vulnerable Republicans, particularly those in the US Senate, have tried to build up their own identity in Washington as serious-minded, debt-tackling lawmakers. Trump makes them uneasy because he alienates many of the Independent voters that they need to win their tight reelection races this fall.
Several of these senators up for reelection this year swept into office on the anti-Obama wave of the 2010 election—but in a midterm election with no presidential candidates on the ballot, many Independents and Democrats sat the cycle out. Republicans won’t have that luxury instead. Instead, they’ll have a Trump-sized albatross around their necks, and they fear he’s going to pull all of them down, giving control of the Senate back to Democrats. On the other hand, the GOP base seems to love the guy, so many incumbents fear getting punished by Republican voters if they dismiss the party’s nominee out of hand.
It’s an opening that Democrats are trying to exploit. The party sees the refusal of these more moderate Republicans to disavow Trump as the chance to tie their opponents to the inflammatory Republican nominee—and to cast the GOP as a party of sexists, racists and xenophobia. By the end of the 2016 cycle, it seems likely that Democrats will have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to fill the ballots with mini-Donald Trumps.
“Even as Donald Trump makes these really offensive, really bombastic, really divisive comments, you have senators who are inclined to fall in line and say, ‘We’ll support the nominee, we’ll support the nominee,'” said Lauren Passalacqua, press secretary for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “We’re making the point that they have actively contributed to allowing Donald Trump to take over the Republican Party. He’s now their standard bearer, and now they have to answer for him.”
In a speech from the Senate floor last week, Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid gave a preview of what these attacks might look like, targeting Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for saying he would back his party’s presidential nominee.
“Since Senator McConnell has so enthusiastically embraced Trump, we can only assume he agrees with Trump’s view that women are dogs and pigs,” Reid said. “We can only assume that the Republican Leader is not repulsed by Trump’s vulgar behavior towards women.”
It’s a strategy the DSCC has been rolling out for months, even before Trump had locked up the Republican nomination. The committee’s website now leads with a video, titled the “Party of Trump,” targeting 12 Republican senators up for reelection in battleground states for saying they’ll support the party’s nominee. In the web spot, clips of the senators saying as much, and even praising Trump, are juxtaposed with footage of Trump cursing and talking about the size of his penis. It ends with a final message, scrolled in text: “Well, if you’re any of these folks, you’re running for Senate in lockstep with Donald Trump,”
“It’s the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it,” US Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat and Hillary Clinton ally, said of his Republican counterparts. “You endorse this guy for whatever reason, at whatever level, you now have to explain those positions to your constituents back home: women, minorities, the disabled, ethnic groups of various kinds—good luck in explaining all of that.”[embedded content]
Many Republicans—most notably House Speaker Paul Ryan—have indicated that they would rather not spend this election cycle explaining away Trump’s various incendiary comments, and are privately urging the nominee to tone his shit down. After meeting last Thursday, Ryan and Trump penned a joint statement calling for the GOP to “unite” and “unify” around the shared goal of keeping Hillary Clinton out of the White House. But it’s clear that Trump has the upper hand: A poll released this week shows that around six in 10 Republican voters see Trump, rather than Ryan, as the leader of their party.
“The establishment, they’re very afraid of Donald Trump, but they’re terrified of the American people who are voting for him,” said US Representative Tom Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican who was an early backer of Trump. Marino argued that Republican incumbents, including those in battleground states, should fear Trump’s supporters, who are energized and focused on shaking up the status quo.
“He has the largest number of votes in a primary in the history of this country in the Republican Party,” Marino said. “So people say, ‘He should change this,’ or, ‘He should change that.’ Back in Pennsylvania we say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.'”
The polling numbers illustrate the quandary facing Republicans this year as they try to tap into the energy that Trump has stirred up among the conservative base, while also distancing themselves from the real-estate mogul’s more incendiary rhetoric. While some prominent conservatives have denounced Trump, most Republicans in Congress feel pressure to back their party’s presumptive nominee.
“No one would confuse my personality with his or his personality with mine, and I hope, moving forward, he is respectful of the views of others,” said US Representative Leonard Lance, a New Jersey Republican. Lance added that he believes Trump is helping to expand the GOP base. “I think he has brought many new voters into the process and I think he will continue to do that.”
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That doesn’t mean Republicans wouldn’t like Trump to soften his tone. “His rhetoric is pretty anti-woman,” said US Representative Cynthia Lummis. “I’m uncomfortable with the way that he confronts women, talks about women, deals with women with whom he’s not related.”Nevertheless, Lummis, a Wyoming Republican, says she’ll support Trump, citing the need for a Republican president to appoint conservative justices the Supreme Court.
“If I had to name six words that describe why I’m going to support Donald Trump, its Supreme Court, Supreme Court, Supreme Court,” she explained. It’s an argument that several Republican lawmakers have made in recent weeks, and one that Trump has apparently taken seriously. On Wednesday, the candidate released a list of 11 conservative-approved jurists he might nominate to the Supreme Court.
Still, Republicans who attempt to cherry-pick their support for Trump could open themselves up to attacks from both sides. “How many times have I heard one of my colleagues who say they endorsed Donald Trump say ‘But I disagree with what he says on X, Y, Z’? That’s a tough spot to be in,” US Representative Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican, told reporters recently. Dent has chosen a different approach, withholding any endorsement while also insisting that he is not in the #NeverTrump camp and sees room for the nominee to win his support.
It’s the type of equivocation that Democrats are looking to expose. “I think it’s naïve to say that they can run races where Trump is just another thing that lives in the same place but we don’t have to talk about it all the time,” Passalacqua, of the DSCC, told VICE. “He’s running for president and these are the folks that would work with him to enact his agenda.”
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