By James Oliphant
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With Donald Trump’s U.S. election prospects dimming and controversy swirling around him, future Republican presidential hopefuls may be weighing whether standing by their man is the savvy move.
Party strategists fear voters fleeing Trump will also fail to support Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, possibly costing the party control of Congress.
If Trump loses the Nov. 8 presidential election to Democrat Hillary Clinton, his polarizing candidacy may reverberate well past 2016, tarring future Republican White House hopefuls, potentially including House Speaker Paul Ryan, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and Indiana Governor Mike Pence, Trump’s vice presidential running mate.
Trump was struggling in opinion polls before a 2005 video released last week showed him talking in sexually aggressive terms about seducing women. Afterward came stories in several news outlets alleging Trump had inappropriately touched women.
Trump has angrily denounced the stories, the media and Republicans who have declined to support him.
"The brand has already been irrevocably damaged. There’s nothing we can do in the short term,” said Doug Heye, a former top official with the Republican National Committee. Looking to the 2018 U.S. congressional election and the 2020 presidential election, Heye said: “In two to four years, the stain on our party’s soul won’t be washed away.”
To be sure, a Trump loss is no guarantee the Republicans would suffer for long. Four years after Barry Goldwater's massive loss in 1964, Richard Nixon staged a Republican comeback. The conservative Heritage Foundation think thank has said Goldwater launched a shift to the right that would end half a century of liberal dominance in American politics.
For Republicans weighing a run for president in four years, deciding whether to back Trump may be a defining moment equal to what politicians faced in 2002 when they decided whether to back Republican President George Bush's Iraq invasion. By 2006, public sentiment had turned harshly against the Iraq war, some Republican politicians lost their jobs, and Democrats seized both the House and Senate.
Republican presidential hopefuls of the future may be asking: How can I be loyal and stand by Trump while at the same time expand the party's base to include sectors the candidate has alienated?
More broadly, they may ask: What's the right side of history?
Trump’s candidacy has attracted passionate support from a core group of voters but also driven away some moderates and independents. Republicans such as Heye fear Trump, who already has alienated large populations of Hispanic voters because of his hard line on immigration, will cost the party a generation of women voters as well.
Ryan, Rubio and Pence all have, to some degree, sought to distance themselves from Trump. Ryan this week told colleagues he would no longer publicly defend Trump, in essence washing his hands of him. Rubio, who ran against Trump in the Republican primary and is fighting for re-election in his home state of Florida, has criticized Trump’s remarks about women, but has not withdrawn his support.
Pence is routinely forced to answer for his running mate’s conduct, but managed at last week’s vice presidential debate to outline policy differences with him.
If Trump leads the party to crushing defeat next month, he may for years haunt Republican office-holders who supported him.
“I predict a chaotic round of finger pointing after the election, as people try to justify their position,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid who witnessed the Democratic wave in 2006 first-hand.
Democrats are trying to link vulnerable Senate candidates to Trump at every turn. On Thursday, the advocacy group American Bridge highlighted Trump’s praise of Rubio on local Florida television, even as Rubio has avoided appearing at any Trump events in the state. Clinton on Twitter this week noted that Ryan has not recanted his endorsement of Trump.
'TOUGH' FOR PENCE
Strategists say Pence would have the hardest time emerging from Trump’s shadow. “I think for Pence, it’s really tough,” said Republican operative Liz Mair.
Pence excited some conservative voters with his debate performance. A Politico/Morning Consult poll taken afterward showed him as the top choice for 2020 among Republicans, at 22 percent. Ryan, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Rubio followed.
Cruz, who was Trump’s leading rival for the 2016 Republican nomination, illustrated the perils of trying to respond to Trump’s candidacy. After holding out, Cruz endorsed Trump last month, just before the candidate went into a public-opinion tailspin.
Cruz and Rubio, as well as Ryan, have come under fire from some Republicans for appearing to waver on Trump, at times standing by him and at other times criticizing him.
"People that waffle are going to have more trouble than people who pick a side,” said Brian Bartlett, a Republican strategist who worked for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
He said Ohio Governor John Kasich, another presidential candidate who consistently refused to endorse Trump, may emerge in the strongest position of all. Other potential 2020 contenders, such as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, may benefit from not being on the ballot this year, thus being spared from being asked constantly about Trump while campaigning.
But that assumes the anti-Trump forces in the party hold sway after the election. There will still be a significant chunk of the party who will view Trump’s critics as disloyal, Bartlett warned, which may put some establishment politicians on the spot to explain why they did not do more to support the nominee.
(Writing by James Oliphant; Editing by Caren Bohan and Howard Goller)