For GOP candidates, renouncing Trump risks fatal blowback

New York Times News Service

Paula Barche Rupnik, a Republican from Scottsdale, Arizona, was planning to vote for Sen. John McCain in his re-election campaign this year. But she changed her mind this weekend, after he rescinded his support for Donald Trump.

Instead, she plans to split her ticket, voting for Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, but for McCain’s Democratic challenger, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick.

She has never voted for a Democrat before.

“I want to send a message to John McCain,” said Rupnik, 58, a consultant for an essential-oils company. “If he doesn’t get elected, the American people that support Trump are going to blame it on those Republicans who didn’t support him.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Bedford, N.H. Trump says Hillary Clinton is making "nasty"€ ads about him. Most of Clinton'€™s commercials about Trump, though, merely include clips of him speaking. Her campaign seems to have concluded that Trump is his own worst enemy. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Rupnik’s punitive impulse captures the dilemma confronting Republican leaders as they head into the final four weeks of the campaign.

Sticking by Trump after the surfacing of a 2005 recording in which he could be heard speaking about women in vulgar terms and bragging about being able to get away with sexual assault would subject Republican candidates to devastating and, quite possibly, career-ending attack.

But disavowing Trump, whose supporters make up the largest share of the Republican base, risks alienating those voters, potentially a no less lethal choice for Senate candidates in key races. And if Trump loses to Hillary Clinton, as polls now indicate is likely, the loss of those Senate contests could be crushing for a party that was already teetering and counting on a chance to rebuild after the election. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted just before the debate showed Trump’s support cratering, with Clinton assuming an 11-point lead nationally.

Supporters: Still, Trump has die-hard supporters who have shown they will stay with him through every controversy he has sparked or endured. His populist, outsider message may be at odds with his background and even with some of his policy proposals, but it has taken hold with many voters, particularly working-class Republicans who are disenchanted with the party’s elite and deeply unhappy with President Barack Obama’s stands on health care and immigration.

“The establishment is trying to hold on to their power, and McCain is one of them,” Rupnik said.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington in this file photo.

That was a common theme in interviews with Trump supporters Sunday in Arizona and New Hampshire, two states with close Senate contests. Many spoke witheringly of incumbent Republican lawmakers who have renounced their support for the party’s presidential nominee.

Stephen Cotta, 61, a Navy veteran who owns a cannabis testing lab in Tempe, Arizona, described McCain as a “traitor” and echoed Trump’s view that he was “not a hero.” Cotta said he, too, planned to vote for Kirkpatrick, the Democratic Senate candidate.

“If you can see McCain and Hillary aren’t that far apart on their philosophies, OK, that’s why they can stand up so adamantly to Trump,” Cotta said.

Vera Anderson, 75, of Phoenix, said she had voted for McCain before, but made up her mind to oppose him when she learned of his rejection of Trump on Saturday.

“I was really on the fence of voting for McCain,” she said. “I don’t want to, didn’t want to, but this made up my mind: I will not vote for him in the general election.”

She was dismissive of the outrage over the 2005 recording that surfaced Friday.

“Nobody likes to hear anything like that, but to me that’s not the important issue, so I absolutely, just — I’m not paying attention to it,” Anderson said. “You know, to me, that is men’s locker-room talk. And I’m sure that if anybody wants to criticize that, let them look at themselves first.”

Disgust: There was similar disgust among Trump’s supporters in New Hampshire, where Sen. Kelly Ayotte — locked in a tight re-election battle against Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat — became the first senator to disavow Trump after the recording’s publication.

“I think the Republican Party is out for itself,” said Buddy Greene, a 48-year-old stonemason from Center Harbor, New Hampshire, who said he supported Trump in the Republican primary in February. “They are not looking at issues of regular folk in the country.”

As he watched the New England Patriots play on television at the Frog Rock Tavern in Meredith, Greene said Ayotte had lost his support. But he said he had already come to see her as overly politically motivated.

“It does not surprise me with her,” Greene said. He said he planned to leave his ballot blank for the Senate contest on Election Day.

As Trump becomes more isolated from the Republican Party, elected officials risk being isolated from their own voters.

Greene said he admired Trump’s speaking style and trusted that there would be “checks and balances” to prevent him from doing anything rash as president.

“I don’t believe any president has absolute control,” he said. “It’s not his fingers on the bomb.”

When a young boy listening pointed out that Clinton had more political experience, Greene smiled.

“That’s why I like Trump,” he said. “Because he has no experience. I want change.”

For McCain, the decision to break with Trump is cushioned by the knowledge that he is on course to win re-election. Ayotte is in a tight race with Hassan, and her choice was fraught with more peril.

Some Trump supporters in New Hampshire said they still planned to vote for Ayotte, but grudgingly, and more out of dislike for Hassan.

One of them was Eric Granfors, a 44-year-old truck driver from Nashua, who had harsh words for Ayotte and her reasoning.

“To see Kelly Ayotte coming out and saying that she doesn’t endorse him now? I think she’s a sellout,” Granfors said. “You know he’s said a lot of bad things along the way. And now with another sound bite, she says this is the one where she isn’t going to endorse him?”