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Politics

Trump’s grass-roots supporters line up to defend him, accuse political elite of exploiting the controversy

Fall Fest fundraiser
Josh Schimek, of Burlington, Wis., wears a shirt, hat and buttons in support of Donald Trump while waiting for speakers at the 1st Congressional District Republican Party of Wisconsin’s Fall Fest on Saturday.
(Associated Press)

At a GOP fundraiser in this picturesque swath of southeastern Wisconsin, Donald Trump was supposed to join the state’s popular congressman, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, for their first joint campaign event Saturday.

But Ryan, the nation’s highest-ranking Republican who has struggled to embrace Trump’s candidacy, rescinded the invitation after a recording emerged of the businessman making vulgar comments about groping women.

When Ryan took the stage to speak Saturday, shock and anger over the incident was still palpable. But to Ryan’s disappointment, it was mostly directed at him.

“Paul Ryan sucks!” said Paul Anderson, 28, who drove nearly an hour from Milwaukee to hear Trump speak.

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As Ryan began to speak, hecklers started chanting Trump’s name and one screamed at Ryan, “You turned your back on us!”

While a number of top-name Republican politicians renounced Trump on Saturday in the aftermath of the recording, many of his rank-and-file supporters stood behind their standard-bearer, heckling and attacking GOP leaders who distanced themselves from the billionaire.

While few openly defended Trump’s lewd remarks, many of his supporters dismissed the incident as overblown, blaming the media for hyping the story and GOP elected officials for panicking in response.

Many Trump supporters saw the tide of criticism against the businessman as the latest push by the political elite to cripple his candidacy. And the disconnect between their continued backing for Trump and the sense of crisis among elected officials underscored the potential for the final phase of Trump’s campaign to deepen the divide between the Republican Party establishment and its grass-roots base.

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In Nevada, Joe Heck, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, was also heckled and booed Saturday after withdrawing his endorsement of Trump.

In New York, throngs of Trump’s supporters gathered outside Trump Tower in a gesture of support, cheering when he briefly emerged to wave.

Inside the Trump campaign, officials were initially concerned about a backlash from the incident, but quickly regrouped and remain optimistic that they can recover, according to a person familiar with the campaign who did not want to be identified speaking about internal conversations.

“There’s a plan to move forward, and it’s going to be aggressive,” the person said. “It’s all voter support.”

Even those Trump supporters who said they found his remarks repugnant said he remained a better alternative than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

At the Fall Fest fundraiser in Wisconsin, Sally Luell, 68, called Trump’s remarks “abhorrent,” but said she would vote for Trump because she “can’t stand Hillary.”

“I think Hillary Clinton backing her husband when he was doing what he was doing was worse,” said the retired municipal worker from Muskego.

Ryan, who was heckled throughout his appearance, never mentioned Trump’s name but acknowledged the controversy during his eight-minute speech.

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“There is a bit of an elephant in the room,” Ryan told about 1,000 Republican voters at the annual barbecue, where political leaders give speeches amid hay bales, pumpkins and American flags.

“It is a troubling situation, and I’m serious, it is,” he said. “I put out a statement about this last night. I meant what I said and it’s still how I feel. But that is not what we are here to talk about today.”

Ryan focused on the U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin, and on his six-point congressional agenda called “A Better Way.”

“In the House, we’re offering people a better way. We are offering solutions,” Ryan said. But the hecklers would not relent; one yelled that Ryan supported President Obama.

Anderson, who owns a gourmet popcorn store, brushed aside Trump’s remarks in the 2005 recording as “some naughty words” and said they were no reason for Ryan to disinvite the candidate.

“Hillary Clinton is laughing at Paul Ryan right now,” he said. “Or laughing with him.”

Some voters were sympathetic to the position Ryan finds himself in -- he has a Boy Scout reputation and has been distressed by numerous previous comments Trump has made, such as his call for banning Muslims from entering the country and his description of a Mexican American judge as incapable of judging a case fairly because of his heritage.

But Ryan’s primary goal this election year is to retain a strong majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. If Republicans abandon Trump en masse, that  could be disastrous for the party in down-ballot races.

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Beth Lock, 54, jumped to Ryan’s defense.

“He supports us. This is his district,” she told Anderson. “He has done a tremendous amount for our area here. He’s a wonderful man.”

But Lock also said she was standing by Trump’s remarks, which she did not find surprising.

“I would rather vote for somebody who did guy talk with somebody, which we all know everyone does, including girls. I would rather have that rather than someone who’s had people killed in Benghazi,” she said, referring to the death of four Americans in an attack on American facilities in Libya while Clinton was secretary of State. “My God, look at the list of what’s gone on with the Clintons.”

The notion that Trump’s comments, which include hitting on a married woman and using crass words to describe women’s anatomy, were commonplace behind closed doors was widespread among his defenders.

“It’s mildly vulgar. He shouldn’t have said it. But this is how men talk at times,” said Orville Seymer, 62, of Franklin. “It’s locker room talk. I’m not excusing it, but he apologized…. We need to focus on what’s important to this country and getting it back on track.”

Seymer, a property manager, added that the discussion about whether Trump should step down was moot because he didn’t think it was possible to replace Trump on the ballot.

“Logistically, I don’t see how to do it. The ballots have already been printed. Early voting has started. People have cast their vote. What can you do?” he said.

Given the backlash, it wasn’t surprising that nearly all the elected officials who spoke Saturday tried to avoid mentioning Trump, even as the crowd chanted, “We want Trump! We want Trump!”

Wearing a Green Bay Packers sweatshirt and jeans, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did not mention Trump by name and instead focused on the Senate race, legislative races and Republicans’ achievements in the state capital. Sen. Ron Johnson did likewise.

State Attn. Gen. Brad Schimel was the sole official to address the nature of Trump’s remarks head on.

“I know Donald Trump said some things that are bad,” said Schimel, adding that he was the father of two daughters. “I don’t like hearing anyone talk that way about women.”

The crowd groaned and one man yelled out, “That was like 12 years ago! Get over it!”

Staff writer Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

For the latest on national and California politics, follow @LATSeema on Twitter.

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