For down-ticket Republicans sitting in the path of Donald Trump’s potential tsunami of a presidential campaign, there seem to be three paths to survival.
You can embrace Trump and hang on for the ride. You can ignore Trump and hope for the best. Or, if you’re Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who is widely assumed to be the most vulnerable Senate Republican in 2016, you can blow up your beach chair, pack your bags, and head for the hills.
No thanks to Trump, Kirk is struggling in his race against Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, with Kirk’s own internal poll showing him down by three to the Iraq veteran in the reliably blue state. So at the end of last week, Kirk became the first Republican senator not only to denounce Trump, but also to run a campaign ad condemning the New York billionaire. With $200,000-plus behind it, the ad told Illinois voters that Kirk “bucked his party to say Donald Trump is not fit to be commander in chief.”
Kirk’s ad came several weeks after he withdrew his endorsement of Trump over the candidate’s racist comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the judge in the Trump University case, and a week after Kirk’s hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune, called for a “Republican mutiny” against Trump, whom it described as “plainly unprepared, unreliable and unfit.”
Kirk’s ad may be the first shot of the official mutiny, but it won’t be the last, particularly if Trump’s poll numbers continue to sink as they have since the terrorist attack in Orlando. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Monday found that a majority of Republican voters say they would want a nominee other than Trump.
The latest Washington Post poll showed just 69 percent of Republicans supporting Trump, with 62 percent saying they want Republican leaders to speak out against Trump when they disagree with his views.
Speaking out against Trump comes with few risks for Republicans not on the ballot in 2016, or out of politics altogether, like Brent Scowcroft and Hank Paulson, who came out against Trump last week. But it’s trickier for Republicans who need the GOP base to turn out for their own reelections in November.
Still, that hasn’t stopped Chris Vance, a Republican Senate candidate challenging Sen. Patty Murray in Washington State. Vance’s motto is “A Time for Truth,” and at a news conference in May, he blasted Trump as “naïve and dangerous” and warned that a Trump presidency would drive the debt up and destroy jobs. “I take no joy in not supporting the Republican nominee,” Vance said. “But I must place conscience and principle ahead of party.”
That same theme played out in Vermont’s governor’s race, where Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who is running for the governor’s mansion, made it clear he’s not backing Trump. Just before the GOP primary, he released a statement saying he refused to support someone “who exploits fear for political gain, mocks people with disabilities, attacks journalists who ask difficult questions, makes sexist, racist and other hateful comments, or who is willing to overlook the truth if it doesn’t work to their advantage.” Scott did not mention Trump by name, but he didn’t have to.
For Kirk, Vance, and Scott, dumping Trump could have an upside. They not only put distance between themselves and a man likely to tank in their states, but also they reinforce their own candidacies as being independent of the party that has put Trump where he is today.
They will also be able to avoid the kind of attack ads Sen. Kelly Ayotte has running against her in New Hampshire. Although Ayotte has been careful not to praise Trump, she also has refused to denounce him as the nominee. The result: clip after clip of her avoiding Trump questions and a message from Democrats—“Kelly Ayotte Trusts Donald Trump with Our Nuclear Codes, New Hampshire Voters can’t trust her in the Senate.”
Along with Kirk and Vance, several House Republicans have taken the extraordinary step of refusing to back the presumptive nominee of their party. Some are retiring at the end of this term, but most are not. All are straying from the tradition of supporting the top of their party’s ticket to protest Trump. Among them, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Cuban-born congresswoman and most senior member of the Florida delegation, said she won’t vote for Trump or Clinton.
Fellow Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo won’t back Trump, either, saying it is “not a political decision—that is a moral decision.’”
Illinois Rep. Bob Dold told a local radio station Trump’s comments about Hispanics, women, and POWs made it impossible for him to vote Trump, while Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina (remember him?) told The Wall Street Journal that Trump didn’t pass his test for planning a constitutionally limited government.
Rep. Richard Hanna of New York was the first to tell the Republican caucus he would never go for Trump. He told Syracuse.com, “I want someone to be president that my children can look up to.”
In an open letter, Rep. Scott Rigell (R-VA), who is retiring, called a Trump presidency “nothing short of catastrophic.” Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) is off the Trump train, and if Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) had to vote today, he said he wouldn’t vote for Trump, either.
As November looms, it is imperative for Trump to prevent more defections and begin to unite his party, but it’s not clear how he’s planning to do so. He’ll meet with House and Senate Republicans in Washington after the Fourth of July recess and two weeks before the Republican convention, which an unprecedented number of House and Senate Republicans say they’ll be skipping altogether.