Election 2020

To Trump or Not to Trump: GOP Candidates Weigh Politics of Unendorsing, Re-endorsing

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) prepares to hold a press conference on Capitol Hill on Sept. 20, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

WASHINGTON – Republican presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump is exhibiting signs of running off the rails in the wake of off-color comments and sexual abuse claims, and there is growing concern in GOP circles that he may carry some of the party’s down-ticket candidates along with him.

Republicans are desperately trying to retain control of the Senate, which they have held for going on two years. But Trump’s wayward acts – several women accuse him of groping them and a video tape shows him talking jocularly about sexual assault — are seemingly making that a difficult goal. The GOP currently holds a 54-44 edge over the Democratic minority with two independents caucusing with the Democrats. A slide of five seats – four if Democrats maintain control of the White House – would cost Republicans that majority.

Fivethirtyeight.com, a site operated by statistics maven Nate Silver, whose predictions have proved spot-on in the past, gives Democrats a 57 percent chance of taking control of the Senate. Among those who might be affected are Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), and Darryl Glenn, who is challenging Democratic incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado.

The three GOP contenders, who hail from states where Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton maintains a modest or large lead, addressed what might best be termed the Trump problem in differing ways.

Kirk announced way back in June that he wouldn’t be supporting Trump, saying his party’s standard bearer is “too bigoted and racist” to serve as president. The first-term lawmaker was, in fact, the first GOP Senate candidate to run an ad attacking Trump, asserting that he “bucked his party to say Donald Trump is not fit to be commander in chief.”

Ayotte took a slightly more measured approach that drew some derision. The former New Hampshire attorney general, who like Kirk is in her first term, initially said that she would not endorse Trump but that she would vote for him – a confusing position that she failed to artfully explain.

“There’s actually a big distinction,” Ayotte told CNN after making her announcement in August. “An endorsement is one where I’m out campaigning with someone. I’m going to continue to focus, really, on my race.”

But during a debate with her Democratic challenger, Maggie Hassan, Ayotte went a bit further, maintaining that Trump “absolutely” would serve as a good role model for children – a claim that generally was met with disdain, forcing her to quickly backtrack.

Regardless, all previous rationales were tossed out the window shortly after the revelation of Trump’s crude comments. Ayotte now says she will not vote for Trump on Nov. 8.

Then there is Darryl Glenn, a retired Air Force colonel and El Paso County commissioner waging an uphill fight against incumbent Bennet.

Voters will require a road map to determine where Glenn stands on Trump at any particular moment. In July, Glenn, after endorsing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the GOP presidential primary, announced that he would “proudly stand” with Trump, who emerged victorious from the crowded field.

That changed when the Trump tape was released. On Oct. 7, Glenn unendorsed his party’s presidential candidate, said he would not vote for him, and urged Trump to step aside, insisting his remarks “disqualified” him from serving as the nation’s commander in chief and his removal from the ticket would create an opening for a more viable candidate.

That lasted for two days. After Trump’s Oct. 9 debate with Clinton, which saw him perform relatively well, Glenn announced that he is reconsidering his unendorsement and that he may still wind up voting for the party’s presidential candidate. Glenn professed a desire to meet with Trump before making a final decision.

“Donald Trump did what he absolutely had to do,” Glenn told Fox News, citing the debate performance. “I think he reset this campaign. People were wanting him to come out and show contrition, and he did that. He accepted responsibility.”

With little more than three weeks to go in the campaign it appears none of the three GOP candidates stand to benefit from any top-of-the-ticket coattails. According to recent polls, Trump trails Clinton by six points in New Hampshire, 15 points in Illinois and seven points in Colorado, making a tough job for Ayotte, Kirk and Glenn even tougher.

Of the three, Ayotte remains the best positioned. Realclearpolitics.com gives the incumbent a two-point edge over Hassan in an average of the polls taken in the race. The most recent survey from the Boston Globe and Suffolk University released on Oct. 5 actually showed Ayotte expanding her lead to six points – 47 percent to 41 percent.

But the Boston Globe survey was taken before Ayotte portrayed Trump as an appropriate role model for children. It also hit prior to the release of Trump’s comments on sexual assault and Ayotte’s declaration that she will not vote for him based on principle.

In what has been an up-and-down campaign those points could prove crucial. While Trump apparently trails Clinton in New Hampshire, his supporters are a dedicated bunch and they could abandon her campaign as a result of her rejection. But it might also play differently, particularly among women, with those who weren’t enamored with Trump in the first place.

In an Oct. 10 interview on New Hampshire Public Radio, Chris Galdieri, an assistant professor of political science at Saint Anselm College, said recent events have made Ayotte’s re-election hopes shakier.

“Before I think she was trying to take a position where she could retain the support of Republicans who like Trump, without alienating Republicans who are opposed to Trump – and New Hampshire has a lot of those folks – while winning some crossover votes from Democrats,” Galdieri told NHPR. “And that’s why she keeps talking about how she’s an independent problem solver, works across the aisle, and challenged extremists who wanted to shut down the government. But now she’s lost one part of that coalition.”

“I suspect a lot of the really dedicated Trump voters are going to see this as an action they can’t forgive, something they’re not willing to overlook. And if that’s the case, I think that makes her climb to winning a general election that much harder.”

Ayotte actually trailed in the race through August and early September, falling behind by 10 points in a WBUR poll released on Aug. 4. She seemingly has rallied in recent weeks. It bears noting, however, that Ayotte is an incumbent polling below 50 percent late in the campaign, a positioned considered well within the danger zone.

The other two races are more clear-cut. Kirk, a self-described fiscal conservative and social moderate – he is pro-choice on abortion – has trailed his challenger, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), from the get-go in a generally Democratic state that serves as the home turf for a fellow named Obama who currently resides in the White House.

Kirk, who announced in August that he intends to write-in former Secretary of State Colin Powell for president, would very likely be trailing Duckworth at this juncture with or without Trump on the ticket. A recent survey conducted by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, released on Oct. 4, shows Clinton leading Trump 53 percent to 28 percent among likely voters in Illinois. The same poll shows Kirk outpacing Trump but he still trails Baldwin 48 percent to 34 percent. The Realclearpolitics.com polling average gives Baldwin a seven-point advantage.

The Illinois contest provides Democrats with one of their best chances for a pick-up.

The Colorado race also does not appear close regardless of Glenn’s position on Trump. Bennet, the Democratic incumbent, has trailed in only one poll – from Gravis Marketing on behalf of the conservative Breitbart News Network – that gave Glenn a two-point lead as of Sept. 23. But a subsequent poll by the same outfit gave Bennet a 47 percent to 39 percent edge as of Oct. 4 – perhaps reflecting the burgeoning collapse of the Trump campaign.

The Realclearpolitics.com average now shows Bennet at 51.3 percent to only 40 percent for Glenn.