Since Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee last week, there's been a fair amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth from big-name Republican politicians. This makes sense — Trump is very unpopular nationally, trails Hillary Clinton in polls, is particularly despised by a key demographic swing group, is known for offensive comments, and has little apparent dedication to conservative principles.
Yet outright declarations from a Republican politician that he or she won't vote for Trump have actually been quite rare.
Indeed, so far there are only a few big-name current or former elected officials who have straightforwardly said they won't support Trump this fall — such as Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, and Sens. Ben Sasse and Lindsey Graham. And they all have one big thing in common: None of them are actually on the ballot this fall.
Many other GOP officials, especially those with lots at stake in the 2016 elections, have instead taken a softer line — they've attempted to signal their ambivalence about Trump or distance themselves from him somehow, but they haven't ruled out voting for him.
This should be no surprise. GOP politicians on the ballot in competitive races this year are trying to strike a difficult balance — they need to win over the swing voters who may despise Trump, but they also have to retain the support of the many Republicans who will turn out for Trump. And this will be a challenge to pull off.
How leading Republicans are trying to have it both ways
Since Trump won Indiana and drove Ted Cruz out of the race Tuesday night, several leading Republican establishment figures — people like Reince Priebus, Mitch McConnell, and Dick Cheney — have come out in support of him. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Priebus's Republican National Committee has to maximize GOP gains, McConnell is desperately trying to keep his control of the Senate, and Cheney's daughter Liz Cheney is running for a Wyoming congressional seat.)
Then there's a wide spectrum of opinion between the loud and proud Trump supporters and the #NeverTrumpers:
- Sen. John McCain has said he'd support Trump, but has criticized him.
- Sen. Pat Toomey has said he's inclined to support the Republican nominee, but that he isn't happy about it.
- Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said last week that he can't support Trump just yet — leaving the door open to do so later.
- Sen. Kelly Ayotte took the odd approach of saying she'll support Trump but not endorse him, as if there's a meaningful difference.
Others have simply neglected to weigh in on the race so far.
None of this is good news for Trump. In normal circumstances, a presumptive nominee would have the vast bulk of the party openly rallying behind him by now. But the electoral dangers of being too closely associated with Trump are already clear.
The relative lack of outright denunciations of Trump is telling. Electoral politics is a team sport, and as this year's Republican nominee, Trump is the leader of the team. Most of the Republican voters who turn out this year will likely cast their ballots for him, and will staunchly oppose Hillary Clinton. And Republicans in tough or potentially tough down-ballot races — as McCain, Toomey, and Ayotte are — evidently fear alienating too many of them.
They also may well fear that a high-profile confrontation with Trump could hurt their chances. The billionaire has proven willing and indeed eager to viciously insult and attack any Republican who challenges his preeminence. That was true obviously with his attacks on his rivals in the primary, but also in how he recently responded to Lindsey Graham's statement that he wouldn't support Trump this fall with a nuclear blast:
Luckily for Graham, he isn't up for reelection again until 2020 (the same year as fellow #NeverTrumper Ben Sasse). Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney's careers in electoral politics appear to be over. And Charlie Baker won't be up until 2018.
But every member of the House of Representatives and 24 Republican senators don't have that luxury. They have to decide how to handle Trump now, with big implications for their career futures. And, so far, most appear to be opting not to fully break with the billionaire.