- House speaker told Republicans to do whatever they need to win
- Trump blasted Ryan for ‘wasting time’ fighting party’s nominee
When it comes to Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan made clear that he’s prepared to risk a civil war in the Republican Party to retain control of Congress.
Ryan broke ranks with the Republican national chairman and Trump’s own running mate Monday to declare that he was effectively disavowing his party’s presidential nominee -- telling Republicans running for the House and Senate to do whatever they need to do to win, even if means rejecting Trump.
“You all need to do what’s best for you in your district,” Ryan of Wisconsin told House Republicans, according to a person who was on a GOP conference call.
The move foreshadows what’s expected to be a titanic battle for the direction of the party if Trump loses. Polls show two-thirds of Republican voters are still standing with Trump despite his vulgar comments about women, putting Ryan and other Trump defectors at odds with the mainstream of the party.
"We’ve never been here before, this kind of crisis," says Curly Haugland, a long-time Republican party activist from North Dakota, and former member of the National Committee.
There is a more immediate concern: Once-confident Republicans now fear that they could lose control of the Senate and see their House majority shrink, as GOP candidates pay the price for Trump.
Come November, the high stakes are setting up a clash between the congressional wing of the party, led by Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, also cool to Trump, and conservatives who still believe Trump should be president. That day of reckoning has been in the works since Trump won the nomination, but the Trump-Ryan split now brings it to the forefront as never before.
Already, Ryan was facing a backlash from some of his more conservative House members. Ryan didn’t formally rescind his endorsement of Trump, but conservatives criticized him for not standing with Trump after Ryan said he could no longer defend or campaign with his party’s presidential nominee.
"The top ticket is the most important part of helping future generations. @realDonaldTrump is the leader we need to #MAGA," Representative Chris Collins of New York, one of Trump’s earliest backers in Congress, tweeted on Monday.
The other top Republican in Congress, McConnell, declined to comment Monday on Trump or his Sunday prime-time presidential debate with opponent Hillary Clinton, which was watched by 66.5 million people.
Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, told RNC members late Monday that he still backed Trump.
Bruce Ash, an RNC member on Priebus’s conference call, said nobody on the call disagreed with the chairman.
"There’s not a member I talked to that feels any differently," Ash said. "Our support of the nominee is unbroken, and that’s what was communicated by the chairman."
‘So-Called Republican Leader’
In a tweet, Trump criticized Ryan, saying he should "spend more time on balancing the budget, jobs and illegal immigration and not waste his time on fighting Republican nominee." At a rally later in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Trump continued on the same theme, saying, "You have people who can’t fix a budget and they start talking about the nominee."
On Tuesday morning, a day after an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed Trump trailing Clinton by double digits, the nominee tweeted that despite what he said was a winning debate performance, “it is hard to do well when Paul Ryan and others give zero support!”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a top Trump adviser, had a veiled warning for Ryan in a Facebook Live session Monday afternoon, saying, "I would hope that every Republican leader, so-called Republican leader, would look seriously at what they are doing an saying now."
"If you can communicate to your voters that Hillary Clinton is totally unacceptable and why she is unacceptable, you don’t have to run around and defend Donald Trump," he said. "That’s Donald Trump’s job. But you don’t have to abandon him -- because there is no alternative at a practical level."
Some Trump supporters and House conservatives were also frustrated with Ryan, but many rank-and-file Republicans said they understood where he was coming from.
"I get it, the speaker’s got to do what he can to protect our control of the House and Senate, shore up his constituencies," Haugland said. But how that will play out, or even work for Ryan while ignoring the top of his party’s own ticket, is anyone’s guess, said Haugland and others.
On the Senate side, vulnerable candidates have split in their approach to Trump, with nearly a third of the chamber’s Republicans now saying they will not vote for Trump and some urging him to drop out of the race.
Even those who remained in Trump’s corner, like Richard Burr of North Carolina, made sure not to repeat New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte’s gaffe last week that Trump was “absolutely” a role model for children.
“Both candidates proved they are not role models for the next generation, but we don’t get to pick now any additional folks to run, so we have to pick who we best think meets the way forward in the future,” Burr told reporters in North Carolina Monday.
Sticking With Trump
Roy Blunt of Missouri remained one of the most pro-Trump of the vulnerable senators, quickly praising him for apologizing for his remarks on the 11-year-old tape, even as a number of his colleagues -- Ayotte, Rob Portman of Ohio, John McCain of Arizona and others took the opportunity to leap off the Trump train.
Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who is being challenged by Democrat Katie McGinty, faulted both Trump and Clinton and hasn’t said which candidate he’ll support.
Senate Democrats and their candidates, meanwhile, launched fresh attacks on Republicans for either standing by Trump until now or for still standing by him.
"The time for courage has passed, and the agonized twisting and turning we’ve seen in recent days is simply too little, too late," said Sadie Weiner, communications director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
No More Questions
On the House side, some Republicans appeared to be taking Ryan’s advice to find their own path.
Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a leader of a group of House Republican centrists, said he told colleagues that it was time to drop Trump because he had already damaged the party.
"There is a battle going on for the soul of the party," Dent said in an interview. "There will be a reckoning after the election."
Representative Mike Bishop of Michigan, said Monday in a statement that Trump wasn’t his first or second choice for a nominee, but that starting now, "I will not answer any more questions regarding Donald Trump."
Ryan said during the conference call that he’ll seek to keep the House and Senate majorities by campaigning in 17 states and 42 cities in October, with more planned.
How well his strategy of distancing himself and Republican congressional candidates can work is debatable, analysts say.
"As Trump’s numbers crater many House and Senate Republicans will find themselves on the wrong side of polling trends," said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University in Washington. "They can only distance themselves so much."
"Either it divides their base or it deflates turnout. Neither bodes well for Republican incumbents sitting on or near the fence," Huder said.
David Catalfamo, a Republican strategist from New York state and a participant in the effort to draft Ryan for president earlier this year, had a more positive view.
"I think voters distinguish between Trump and down ballot candidates," he said. "The big X factor is what the impact is on turnout. If too many of our GOP voters get turned off or think it’s a blowout and don’t come out it will be a problem."