He doesn't leave anyone indifferent.

Photographer: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Republican Incumbents Hope to Survive the Trump Effect

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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Republican candidates have a model to emulate as they struggle with growing concerns that Donald Trump could drag down the party in November: the late Muhammad Ali and his famous "rope-a-dope." 

Ali, who died June 3 and was laid to rest last week, perfected this technique in his 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" bout against George Foreman: He’d cling to the ropes, bobbing and weaving as his opponent would unleash a flurry of blows and tire himself out.

QuickTake How the U.S. Elects Its Presidents

More and more Republicans are bobbing to avoid Trump, after controversies such as his racially tinged charge that the Indiana-born judge overseeing a fraud case against Trump University is biased because his parents were from Mexico. A few, including Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, flatly declare that they won’t vote for him. Others are waiting to see whether there will be more rants.

Most Republicans from solidly conservative regions -- the Deep South and some Western states -- have it easy. There’s no price to pay for supporting the ticket, however they may view the nominee.

That’s not the case for Republicans from blue, or Democratic-centric, places. "The safest course for them is to denounce Trump, say they are completely opposed and won’t support him," says Whit Ayers, a prominent Republican pollster. That’s the case with Kirk, who faces an uphill re-election fight.

It’s more complicated for those in purple, or swing, states and districts, where a winning coalition would include Trump champions and more independent-minded voters turned off by him. "Their best strategy is to localize the race and say it has nothing to do with the presidential race," Ayers says. This is the real political rope-a-dope. Yet few politicians are as skillful as Ali.

Take Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, where Trump scored a huge victory in the February primary but where the general election features more centrist, independent voters. She said she would support Trump but not endorse him. Last week, she rejected his comments about the judge and demanded that he apologize. Trump tends not to do apologies.

Other challenged incumbent senators, such as Ohio’s Rob Portman or Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, offer lukewarm support along with criticism of specific Trump comments -- or they simply try to keep a distance. A few of their colleagues, such as North Carolina’s Richard Burr or Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who earlier were joined at the hip with Trump, seem to be backing away.

No one is more tortured than Senator John McCain, whose unassailable record of heroism as a prisoner of war was mocked by Trump, and who has a solid pro-immigration record. But he’s in a tight re-election battle and can’t afford to alienate the Trump brigade in Arizona.

And House Republicans now worry about what had been considered impossible only a month ago: a loss of 30 seats and the party’s control of the body. There are two distinctly different types of districts where they fear incumbents could get swamped by an anti-Trump tsunami.

One is upscale: politically moderate suburbs outside Philadelphia, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Chicago or Washington. President Barack Obama carried most of these districts, where the political profile is hostile to Trump. The others are the heavily Hispanic districts, including several in California’s Central Valley and one in the Florida Keys. These are represented by Republicans who support Hispanic interests, but these lawmakers could go down if Trump’s rhetoric were to generate a huge turnout of Hispanic voters.

To be sure, there are places where Trump might help, including a few New York districts and the Iron Range in Minnesota, an economically distressed old mining district with a Democratic incumbent.

Perhaps Trump will change and become a more disciplined candidate. If not, and his polls slip, scores of additional Republican candidates won’t be clinging to the ropes; they’ll be jumping out of the ring.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net