In a secret call with top officials Monday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus described the GOP’s relationship with its nominee’s beleaguered presidential campaign as “fully engaged” and “together at all levels.”
But behind closed doors with members of the House, Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., urged anything but that. “You all need to do what’s best for you in your district,” he told his caucus, zeroing in on protecting its members, all of whom are facing re-election in four weeks.
Ryan says he will not defend Donald Trump or campaign with him but didn’t withdraw his endorsement — a delicate balancing act not only for Ryan’s political future but also for the dozens of endangered down-ballot Republicans looking for guidance on how to handle Trump’s latest controversy and potential controversies to come.
But the power struggle that the Republican Party has been combating for at least the last three elections, starting in 2010, has now appeared to overwhelm the top of the ticket. Its reverberations could be felt long after 2016 in American politics.
Trump’s latest public spat with establishment Republicans in the wake of what he called his “locker room banter” about groping women, for which he has since apologized, has taken center stage over the last 24 hours.
He has blasted Ryan as a “very weak and ineffective leader” who has given “zero support” and called 2008 Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain “very foul-mouthed.” He also compared top elected GOP officials to “shackles” that have been taken off.
But the discord runs deeper than the paralyzing feud between the nominee and the party’s most prominent elected officials: All the down-ballot candidates have been left to navigate the final four weeks to Election Day on their own.
In some battleground states, candidates like McCain of Arizona and Rob Portman of Ohio have distanced themselves from Trump and even called for him to drop out of the race. In other hotly contested races, candidates like Richard Burr in North Carolina and Roy Blunt in Missouri have held on to their support for the nominee.
But still other candidates have gotten themselves tangled up. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte called Trump a “role model” before calling on him to step down. Sen. Deb Fischer from Nebraska called on him to step down before the debate but now says she still plans to vote for him in November. Darryl Glenn in Colorado also waffled on his initial rebuke of Trump. And Sen. Ted Cruz has maintained his support of Trump to avoid a double flip-flop on backing the nominee.
Disagreement over how to handle what’s left of Trump’s splintered support among party leaders has bubbled to the surface in the RNC. Influential GOP state party chairman Robert Graham of Arizona attacked Republicans who were waffling on backing Trump.
“It is hard to understand why some are willing to surrender the principles and values we espouse,” he wrote on Monday afternoon. “Leadership is more than stopping political mail, not campaigning for someone or making statements condemning a person’s comments made nearly a dozen years before.”
Still, so far, the Republican Party’s attempt to localize Senate races has been rather successful. Most polls to this point have shown GOP Senate candidates with slightly more support than Trump in most competitive states.
But even if enough 2016 GOP hopefuls manage to steer their way across the finish line and maintain control of Congress, it seems clear that the Republican Party, its elected leaders, its nominee and, most important, its supporters across the country look to remain splintered even on Nov. 9.