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The best new Senate race gaffe is about whether Donald Trump is a good role model for children

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Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Here’s your latest reminder about how deeply strange this election year is.

1) On Monday night, a sitting Republican senator in a swing state said that her party’s presidential nominee would be a good role model for children.

2) This statement, which would be banal in any ordinary race, was immediately interpreted as a crippling gaffe that would imperil the senator’s reelection.

3) So the senator soon issued a statement saying she “misspoke” and clarifying that the party’s nominee is not, in fact, a good role model.

4) However, she’s still voting for him to become president.

Yes, this is how Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire began her week. Locked in a tight reelection race against her state’s Democratic governor, Maggie Hassan, Ayotte was asked during a debate whether she would tell children “to be like Donald Trump.” The moderator continued: “Would you point to him as a role model?”

“Uh, I, uh, I think that certainly there are many role models that we have. And, uh, I believe he can serve as president. And so absolutely. I would do that,” Ayotte stammered in response.

Recognizing this admission for the disaster it was, Ayotte’s campaign soon sent out a statement that read as follows: “I misspoke tonight. While I would hope all of our children would aspire to be president, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have set a good example and I wouldn’t hold up either of them as role models for my kids.”

Now, oddly enough, Ayotte has said for months that she will vote for Donald Trump to become president, which seems like a more important topic than whether he is a good role model for young children. (She’s also bizarrely tried to create a distinction between saying she would vote for Trump, which she has done, and saying she “endorses” him, which she claims she has not done.)

But when you think about it, her logic there actually made a certain amount of political sense. Whether or not it’s accurate, she could at least make the case that Trump is deeply flawed, but worthy of supporting purely for “lesser of two evils” reasons, because Hillary Clinton is so much worse.

Ayotte’s blunder here was saying Trump is actually good in his own right. She dropped the criticism of Trump and deemed him worthy of being a role model at the very moment when his personal behavior has been even more repulsive than usual (which, for him, is saying something).

For the most part, Republican candidates across the country have managed to avoid saying what they think about Trump’s controversies of the day by changing the subject to Clinton or conservative policies.

“We know that normal, ideologically orthodox conservative elected officials think Trump should be president of the United States,” Matt Yglesias wrote. “But to a striking extent, we haven’t heard whether they think it’s appropriate for a president to be tweeting about sex tapes, suggesting Mexicans can’t serve as federal judges, or musing out loud about abrogating NATO and leaving much of Eastern Europe open to Russian conquest.”

Ayotte’s gaffe shows that even GOP politicians in important Senate races haven’t quite managed to learn how to finesse this. Ayotte has tried to strike a balance between criticizing Trump and justifying her support for him — but in calling him a role model, she seems to have gone too far.

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