By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) - Republican candidates in tight races across the country have tied themselves in knots trying to decide whether to disavow or support their party's presidential nominee, Donald Trump, especially since multiple sexual assault allegations against him have surfaced.
But Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, who is in a virtual tie with his Democratic challenger in a race that could tip control of the senate, has chosen a third option: say nothing.
Toomey appears to be the only vulnerable Republican senator to have avoided answering the question of whether he will vote for Trump, even as he has denounced the billionaire real estate developer's lewd comments about women and allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior.
His Democratic challenger, Katie McGinty, has spent days hammering Toomey for his reticence, coining the term "Fraidy-Pat" and tying his candidacy to that of Trump's at every turn.
But Pennsylvania political analysts say Toomey may have taken the safest path given his need to stitch together a coalition of working-class, white voters who support Trump and moderate, college-educated suburbanites who find his rhetoric distasteful.
Polling averages show Trump losing the state to Hillary Clinton by a margin of 6 to 7 percentage points, while McGinty held a lead of less than 1 point in the senate race, in polls before the senate candidates debated on Monday.
Pennsylvania has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988. Toomey won his seat in 2010 by just 2 percentage points.
"I think for him he's making the right choice, because I think he has to have it both ways," said G. Terry Madonna, the director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll in Lancaster. "He's between a rock and a hard place, and he's chosen to stay in the middle."
The question of whether to back their party's presidential nominee—a non-issue in virtually any other election year—has bedeviled Republicans facing competitive races across the country, with control of the senate hanging in the balance.
Some, like Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, have rescinded their support, angering Trump's core supporters. Others, like Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, have stuck with Trump and risked losing moderate voters.
A handful of Republicans, including Ayotte before she recently changed her mind, have tried to straddle the issue by withholding a formal endorsement while saying they still planned to vote for Trump.
The Pennsylvania campaign, one of half a dozen close contests with the Senate up for grabs, has been the most expensive Senate race in the country, with more than $100 million from the parties and outside groups pouring into the state as of August.
McGinty, who served as an environmental adviser in former President Bill Clinton's administration, has spent months trying to link Toomey to Trump.
She has redoubled her efforts over the last ten days, as multiple women have come forward to accuse Trump of sexually assaulting them following the release of a video recording from 2005 in which he bragged in lewd terms about such behavior.
On Thursday, for the second time since the tape became public, McGinty held a conference call for reporters to assail Toomey for what she described as his tacit support for Trump.
"Senator Pat Toomey now has the distinction of being the only senate candidate in the entire United States of America to refuse to come clean about whether or not he supports Donald Trump," she said. "So, there's only one way to interpret that: Pat Toomey is still standing by Donald Trump."
Toomey has criticized Trump's "outrageous comments" but has declined to say whether he will vote for him, a position he reiterated on Monday at the first of two debates with McGinty. He did, however, say he "probably" will announce a decision before the Nov. 8 elections, after previously suggesting he might not.
In a statement, a Toomey spokesman turned the criticism around, calling McGinty a "rubber stamp" for the Democratic establishment in Washington.
"Pat Toomey has proven he will stand up to his own party for Pennsylvania families, like on gun safety, fighting corporate welfare, or ending the Wall Street bailouts once and for all," the spokesman, Ted Kwong, said in an email. "Katie McGinty can't name a single disagreement with her party, whether it's the reckless Iran deal or thousands in new middle-class tax hikes."
Charlie Gerow, a veteran Republican political consultant in Pennsylvania who is not involved in the race, said Toomey's middle-of-the-road strategy was necessary given the deficit Trump is facing in the state.
Toomey, Gerow said, cannot afford to alienate Trump backers in places like southwestern Pennsylvania, even as he tries to appeal to voters in the Philadelphia and Lehigh Valley suburbs.
"I think it is the best strategy among several unpalatable options," Gerow said. "I don't think there was any better way to approach that dilemma."
(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Leslie Adler)