Washington: Stung by a fierce backlash from Donald Trump’s ardent supporters, four Republican members of Congress who had made headlines for demanding that Trump leave the presidential race retreated quietly this week, conceding that they would still probably vote for the man they had excoriated just days before.
From Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the only member of the Republican leadership in either chamber who had disavowed Trump, to Rep. Scott Garrett, R-New Jersey, who is in a difficult re-election fight, the lawmakers contorted themselves over Trump. Some of them would not mention him by name, preferring instead to affirm their support for the generic “Republican ticket”, still grasping for a middle ground.
They said that if Trump would not make way for his running mate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, to lead the party after the release of a recording on Friday showing Trump bragging about groping women, they had little choice but to vote for their embattled nominee. But the collective about-face owed less to his refusal to exit a race in which ballots are already being cast than to the fury his supporters unleashed at the defectors at rallies and on social media.
And Trump himself escalated his bitter feud with the country’s highest-ranking elected Republican, Speaker Paul D. Ryan, saying at a rally in Florida on Wednesday that Ryan’s refusal to actively support his candidacy was part of a “sinister deal going on.”
The quick reversals back to Trump’s camp vividly illustrated Republicans’ predicament as they grapple with a nominee whom some of their core supporters adore, a Democratic candidate their base loathes — and a host of voters who believe that Trump is self-evidently unsuited for high office.
In Alabama, Rep. Bradley Byrne, who said flatly over the weekend, “It is now clear Donald Trump is not fit to be president of the United States,” insisted to reporters on Wednesday that he had always said he would “be a supporter of the Republican ticket from top to bottom.”
“I’m a Republican,” Byrne said. “I don’t vote Democrat.”
Thune, who also said on Saturday that Pence should be the party’s nominee “effective immediately”, acknowledged that the recording of Trump boasting of grabbing women’s genitals was “more offensive than anything that I had seen” from the often-inflammatory Republican standard-bearer. But he said in an interview on Tuesday with KELO television in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that he would still cast his ballot for Trump.
“I intend to support the nominee of our party, and if anything should change, then I’ll let you know,” Thune said. “But he’s got a lot of work to do, I think, if he’s going to have any hope of winning this election.”
Of the Republicans who reversed themselves, only Garrett is in a competitive race. Byrne and Thune are expected to easily defeat their Democratic opponents, and Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska is not up for re-election until 2018.
On Saturday, Fischer called Trump’s comments “disgusting and totally unacceptable under any circumstance” and said, “It would be wise for him to step aside and allow Mike Pence to serve as our party’s nominee.”
But she was almost philosophical in telling a Nebraska radio station on Tuesday why she was still backing Trump.
“He decided he would not step aside. I respect his decision,” she said. “I support the Republican ticket, and it’s a Trump-Pence ticket.”
In New Jersey, Garrett also initially called for Pence to lead the party.
But by Tuesday, Garrett, a seven-term lawmaker who was already facing perhaps the stiffest challenge of his career, said he would “vote Trump for president if he is the party’s official nominee come Election Day.”
The legislators’ tortuous efforts to climb down from their earlier clarion calls did not seem to placate Trump’s admirers much.
“If you are not FOR Mr. Trump, then you must be AGAINST Mr. Trump,” Lonnie Lee Mixon II, an Alabamian, wrote on Byrne’s Facebook page. “Please stop dancing around this.”
Sensing an opportunity to rally his supporters against the wavering Republican leaders, Trump went after Ryan at a campaign rally for the first time since the speaker told House Republicans on Monday that he would no longer defend the party’s nominee. Before 7,000 people in Ocala, Florida, Trump veered between dark, conspiratorial warnings and strikingly personal expressions of resentment.
“There’s a whole deal going on,” he said of Ryan’s decision to walk away from his candidacy. “We’re going to figure it out.” Yet even as he used the rally to accuse the speaker of being part of a nefarious, if vague, plot, Trump also made clear he was wounded that Ryan had not called to praise him for his debate performance Sunday.
“So wouldn’t you think that Paul Ryan would call and say good going — in front of just about the largest audience for a second-night debate in the history of the country?” he complained.
In a conference call on Wednesday night with major donors, Ryan vented about leaks from the conference call with House Republicans on Monday, in which he announced his decision to focus entirely on congressional races. He said the news media had misinterpreted his message to his colleagues — that they should not “defend the indefensible” — and that Trump lacked “the discipline” to resist swiping back at him, according to a donor on the call. But Ryan said that Republican candidates could “help Trump with turnout,” and that he planned to use a speech on Friday to argue against Clinton.
One of Trump’s most prominent remaining allies, the former House speaker Newt Gingrich, said the nominee’s blasts at other Republicans were an unnecessary diversion from targeting Hillary Clinton. But Gingrich added that Ryan had invited the opprobrium from both Trump and his admirers.
“Ryan wants to find a middle path, but he doesn’t understand that the middle path signals to his own partisans that he’s not hanging tough,” he said. “All you have to say if you’re Ryan is, ‘We need to beat Hillary Clinton, and I’m going to help beat Hillary Clinton.’”
Clinton herself was revelling in the Republican conflagration and, in a new sign of confidence, used a rally in Pueblo, Colorado, to appeal across state lines to voters in two red states that now appear within reach.
“If you’ve got friends in Utah or Arizona, make sure they vote, too,” she said. “We are competing everywhere.”