A deeply wounded Donald Trump struggled to salvage his presidential campaign Saturday as Republicans who had remained at his side out of loyalty or fear abandoned him to try to save themselves and their party’s congressional majorities.
Even as Trump insisted that he would remain in the race and battle Democrat Hillary Clinton in Sunday’s second presidential debate, a parade of Senate and House incumbents and party challengers repudiated him throughout the day for vulgar comments made in a 2005 interview made public Friday. The video included his assertion that he was able to grope women because “when you’re a star, they let you do it.”
The public enmity toward the party’s standard-bearer one month before election day marked a brutal break from what had been the practice during earlier Trump controversies. Before now, most Republicans would disavow his statements and urge him to watch his words — without taking the additional step of saying they would not back him for president.
Some continued to take that stance Saturday; House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate leader Mitch McConnell and Republican Party chief Reince Priebus remained in Trump’s camp. But others made a different calculation: that it was more dangerous to stick with him than to leave.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, who had endorsed Trump despite the presidential candidate’s dismissal of him as “not a war hero” for being captured and tortured during the Vietnam War, spoke as many did Saturday when he said he had tried to support Trump but could no longer do so.
For many Republicans, the day carried the whiff of disinfectant, as if the goal was to stop the contagion from spreading beyond Trump himself. Blunting his reach is particularly important when it comes to keeping control of the Senate, where Republicans hold 54 seats to 46 for Democrats and their independent allies.
Their hold on the House is far more firm, but some Republicans were growing concerned that Trump’s campaign could collapse so precipitously, and so damage GOP voter turnout, that anything was possible even if not probable.
“It’s time for the GOP masters to spend the next month figuring out how to save the Senate, the House, the governors,” said Rich Galen, a GOP strategist who has worked for Newt Gingrich and Dan Quayle. “The presidency is gone.”
Trump had no scheduled public events Saturday. He left his residence in New York City’s Trump Tower briefly in the afternoon to meet with supporters chanting outside.
The visit before television cameras seemed intended to remind his own party that he retains a hold on a significant band of voters — and that the resilient candidate has survived plenty of stumbles that outsiders had predicted would destroy his campaign.
Early in the day, he tweeted as if joking: “Certainly has been an interesting 24 hours!” Then he insisted he was in the race to stay.
“The media and establishment want me out of the race so badly,” Trump tweeted. “I WILL NEVER DROP OUT OF THE RACE, WILL NEVER LET MY SUPPORTERS DOWN!”
His running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, issued a statement that, in the diplomatic language of political alliances, served as a pointed rebuke.
Pence, who did not appear as planned at a Wisconsin rally with Ryan, said he was “offended by the words and actions” of Trump.
“I do not condone his remarks and cannot defend them. I am grateful that he has expressed remorse and apologized to the American people,” Pence said. In a strong hint that Trump apologize further during Sunday’s debate, he added that “we pray for his family and look forward to the opportunity he has to show what is in his heart when he goes before the nation tomorrow night.”
Repudiation of Trump was bipartisan; both McCain and Vice President Joe Biden referred to Trump’s words about groping as indicators of “sexual assault.”
The Clinton campaign, for its part, stayed largely out of the fray so as not to intrude on the Republican immolation; it mostly issued routine reminders of voters to cast ballots in early voting states. But it added a snippet of Trump’s sexually aggressive remarks to an ad highlighting his verbal miscues.
Those most endangered were candidates in contested races for whom — as for the Republican Party as a whole — Trump has been both a salvation and curse.
The developer-turned-television-personality used his fame and fortune and a finely honed populist message to win over blue-collar white voters in many states who previously had either sided with Democrats or stayed home on election day. That amounted to a well of fresh support for Republicans in some areas.
But with the same message that Trump was using to attract blue-collar white voters, he was also repelling women and minority voters as well as the college educated, whom Republicans depend upon in many areas for their winning margins.
In New Hampshire, Trump had already been an albatross for incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte. She came under fire and was forced to backtrack last week when, in a debate, she said that Trump would be a role model to children. And that was before the video surfaced with more incendiary remarks.
On Saturday, Ayotte said in a Facebook statement that she had wanted to support Trump because he represented change.
“However, I’m a mom and an American first, and I cannot and will not support a candidate for president who brags about degrading and assaulting women,” she said.
But she then came under a withering, daylong assault from her Democratic opponent, Gov. Maggie Hassan, whose campaign said Ayotte’s decision to withdraw her endorsement of Trump amounted to “craven political self-preservation.” Hassan’s campaign sent repeated emails to voters ticking off the times Ayotte had stuck with Trump through earlier insults against women.
The dynamic for Republican incumbents in tight races is fraught with danger: If they have not brushed aside Trump, they will be under pressure to do so. If they have pushed him away, they are likely to be questioned about why they had not done so earlier, given the repeated controversies. And in some cases, they will face punishment from his backers regardless.
Alice Stewart, a Republican strategist with close ties to the party’s religious activists, said that Trump’s remarks were “disrespectful and not presidential” — particularly one segment in which he talked of his desire to have sex with a married woman.
Trump’s words will not change the minds of most of his supporters, she noted, but had the potential to turn away from the Republican ticket the sliver of suburban voters whose judgments could determine the next president.
“Ever since the convention, his primary goal was broadening his appeal to the voting electorate and bringing in those on the fence,” she said. “All they need is one thing like this and they’re going to either sit it out or vote for Hillary or one of the others.”
That said, she added, Trump has been counted out before. “Those who write off Donald Trump do so at their own peril,” said Stewart, who worked for two of the GOP candidates Trump dispatched in the primaries.
Others cast Trump’s status as far more dire. Republican strategist Charlie Gerow said the events of recent days “accelerated a downward spiral that will be very, very hard to pull out of.” But he did not believe Trump’s problems would be visited upon all Republicans.
“I don’t think there’s going to be as much down-ballot bleed,” said Gerow, who is based in Harrisburg, Pa. “I think people will view this as a reflection of Donald Trump and not the other candidates.”
But at the very least the nominee’s difficulties could serve to obliterate the candidates’ own messages.
In Pennsylvania, Trump had inched closer to Clinton in recent weeks. Last week her lead in Pennsylvania, a must-win state for Trump, firmed up.
The question now, as it is in states such as New Hampshire, Missouri and North Carolina, is whether Trump’s troubles will sweep out not only him but the Republican senate candidate. In Pennsylvania, Republican incumbent Pat Toomey has been locked in a close race with Democrat Katie McGinty.
Democrats have done their best to tie Trump to Toomey, even if Toomey has not formally endorsed the nominee. A new ad by the liberal group Move On replayed part of the now-famous video and closed with the logo “Defeat Trump-Toomey.”
Gerow said that several motivations — party loyalty, hatred of Clinton — had kept many Republicans aligned with Trump even given his penchant for the outrageous. But there was a “visceral distinction,” he said, between where Trump stood before the 2005 video surfaced, and after.
For Republicans, what is left is an effort to salvage their standing among the voter groups they need — a major one being the group Trump may have most offended.
“Donald Trump’s challenge was always among college-educated women in Pennsylvania,” Gerow said. “He had to bring those voters back into the fold.”
He paused, then added with a wry laugh: “This wasn’t the best way to go about doing it.”