Fear and loathing are striking congressional Republicans faced with the distinct possibility of Donald Trump as their presidential nominee.
“My party has gone … crazy,” says South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who maintains that the billionaire businessman would inflict as much damage to the GOP as the iceberg did to the Titanic.
Republicans share a palpable fear that Trump would alienate Hispanics, minorities, independents and women, driving them to vote Democratic in November and costing the GOP the presidency, its Senate majority and suddenly competitive House seats. With the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the ideological balance of the Supreme Court for decades also is at stake.
GOP incumbents clearly understand that the only option is to run a flawless campaign.
“My campaign is going to be about who I am and what I’ve done,” said Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., a freshman facing a potentially tight re-election race in the Philadelphia suburbs. “And regardless of who the candidate is, I’m going to seek to build my own record and carry my own message in a very personalized way.”
Trump tightened his grip on front-runner status with a win in Nevada this week and secured the endorsement on Friday of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a jolt to his campaign ahead of Super Tuesday voting. Top rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are scrambling for wins that could upend the race.
In accepting Christie’s backing, Trump insulted Rubio and 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Trump “is offensive to an overwhelming majority of people in my district the way he’s offensive to me,” said freshman Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo. “Donald Trump does and says things that we teach our children not to do.”
On immigration, the New York businessman has vowed to end birthright citizenship, build a wall on the Mexican border financed by Mexico and potentially deport millions of immigrants living here illegally. Not surprisingly, 8 in 10 Hispanic voters have a negative view of Trump in a recent Washington Post/Univision poll.
That could cause significant problems for Curbelo, whose South Florida district is predominantly Hispanic and promises one of this fall’s most competitive congressional races.
“Most people understand that Donald Trump is neither a true Republican nor a true conservative. So I think people view his candidacy in isolation, and they’re going to support other candidates they happen to agree with or believe in, regardless of party labels,” said Curbelo, who’s backing Rubio after initially endorsing Jeb Bush.
To be sure, some congressional Republicans see a possible silver lining, uncertain about the consequences of a Trump nomination. They point to record turnout in GOP caucuses and Trump’s appeal to middle-class workers, including a traditional Democratic bloc — labor.
“Donald Trump is, I think, tapping into an energy that is bringing more people out to vote,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, whose northern California district went for President Barack Obama twice. “You’ve got a lot of first-time voters. You’ve got some new energy. I think it’s a different turnout model.”
Republicans are expected to easily hold their commanding House majority of 246-188 with one vacancy. The Senate is far tougher, as Republicans, with a 54-46 advantage, have to defend 24 seats to the Democrats’ 10. Seven of the Republican seats are in states Obama won twice — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Illinois, New Hampshire, Iowa and Florida.
In the House, Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole says the challenge will be winning in some two dozen districts where Obama won in 2012.
“Trump being unconventional may not hurt you as much in the places that are normally at risk in an election year,” Cole said. “He will attract some Democrats.”
Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Pennsylvania Republican who has endorsed Ohio Gov. John Kasich for president, said Trump may be better for down-ballot Republicans than Cruz, whom he called an “inflexible ideologue.”
“A presidential nominee who’s ideologically inflexible represents a greater challenge in the Northeast than a nominee who’s ideologically malleable and scattered, which is Trump,” Dent said.
In fact, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said it may be possible to work with Donald Trump in the White House.
Graham doesn’t see it that way.
The GOP, according to the unsuccessful presidential candidate, has its best chance in years to win the White House, as Democrats are likely to nominate Hillary Clinton, who has been damaged by questions about her trustworthiness. But his party is about to blow it, he said.
“The most dishonest person in America is a woman who’s about to become president. How could that be? My party has gone … crazy,” Graham told an audience of lawmakers, journalists and congressional aides at the Washington Press Club Foundation’s annual dinner Thursday.
Said another South Carolinian, Rep. Mick Mulvaney: “I think Lindsey and a lot of people in the establishment wing of the party are looking around and saying, ‘What the … is going on?’ “