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Down Ticket #20: The 10 most — and least — principled Republican responses to Trump

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump kisses a “Women for Trump” sign during a campaign rally, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016, in Lakeland, Fla. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

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At this point, pretty much every Republican candidate in the country has been forced to take some sort of stand on Donald Trump.

But which candidates will come away from the whole debacle looking principled — and which candidates may not?

After the leak last Friday of a 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape showing Trump bragging to host Billy Bush that he can “grab” women “by the p****” simply because he’s “a star,” at least 15 leading GOP figures — including Arizona Sen. John McCain, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Nevada Senate candidate Joe Heck, all of whom will be on the ballot this fall — either withdrew their earlier endorsements or said they could no longer in good conscience vote for the Republican nominee. Another 40 or so went further, calling for Trump to step aside and let someone else take his place atop the ticket. Many others reiterated, when pressed, that they were still backing the Manhattan mogul for president.

And the whole cycle now seems certain to kick back into high gear after an avalanche of new reports appeared Wednesday in the New York Times, the Palm Beach Post, People magazine and Rolling Stone, alleging that Trump improperly touched five women in separate incidents going back decades.

As Ronald Reagan once said — and as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is overly fond of repeating — we seem to have reached “a time for choosing.”

During a typical election year, down-ballot candidates aren’t constantly asked whether they support their party’s presidential nominee, because the answer is obvious. Why wouldn’t they support their party’s presidential nominee?

But Trump is different. By repeatedly getting on the wrong side of one group or another — Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans, POWs, people with disabilities, and now, with the “Access Hollywood” tape and the related allegations, women — he has put nearly all of his fellow Republican office-seekers in the uncomfortable position of having to declare whether or not they actually want the GOP standard bearer in the White House.

Many of these responses have been predictably political — the product of cold, hard calculations about how deserting or defending the Donald will affect each candidate’s chances of winning his or her state or district in November.

That’s why you have a bunch of blue-state Republicans in close Senate contests — Heck in Nevada, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Mark Kirk in Illinois — bailing on Trump, while a bunch of their redder-state counterparts — Richard Burr in North Carolina, Roy Blunt in Missouri, Todd Young in Indiana — stand by him.

Incumbent Republican Sen. John McCain, left, takes a few notes as Arizona Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick speaks to the debate moderators prior to their only scheduled debate Monday, Oct. 10, 2016, in Phoenix before next month’s general election. (Photo: Ross D. Franklin/AP)

Back when Ohio Sen. Rob Portman seemed to be running neck-and-neck with former Gov. Ted Strickland, Portman was pro-Trump, with some reservations. But now the senator is ahead by 14.5 percentage points, on average — and he has suddenly had enough of his party’s nominee.

The same goes for Arizona Sen. John McCain. Never mind that Trump insulted McCain’s Vietnam War service last July; the senator still spent much of 2016 sullenly repeating the same mantra: “I support the nominee.” It was only after McCain defeated his pro-Trump primary challenger — and amassed a 16-point lead over his general election rival, Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick — that he finally felt free to file for divorce.

All of these denunciations and exonerations may sound moral, but they’re mostly about math.

And yet the latest (and greatest) round of Trump-dumping got us wondering: Have any current Republican candidates broken from the pack and responded to Trump’s provocations in a particularly principled way? And what about the opposite: Who really seems to have left their principles behind?

Here, in no particular order, are Down Ticket’s top picks in both categories:

Principled

Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.-3): A second-generation Arab-American of Palestinian Christian and Syrian Greek Orthodox descent, Amash arrived on Capitol Hill in 2011 at the ripe old age of 30. Now 36, he’s always been a staunch, libertarian-leaning conservative — tea party, House Freedom Caucus, the whole nine yards.

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., is seen during a congressional panel at the 2016 Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, in Mackinac Island, Mich. (Photo: Carlos Osorio/AP)

Like many of his ideological brethren, Amash opposed Trump during the primaries, saying he “presents a kind of threat to our [constitutional] system that is maybe, in some ways, bigger that what the Democrats present.” (Amash initially backed Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and later endorsed Cruz.) Unlike the other 38 members of the House Freedom Caucus, however — and unlike both Paul and Cruz — he refused to come around once Trump became the GOP nominee.

“Nothing better illustrates the phoniness of politicians than the ease with which they shift from blasting one another to praising one another,” he said at the time.

In March, Amash pledged not to vote for Trump on Election Day — not because of any particular scandal, but because he doesn’t consider the mogul a “constitutional conservative” — and he has stuck to his position ever since.

Here, for example, is what Amash tweeted right after Trump delivered his convention speech in July: “Governments have always used fear to curtail the rights of the people. And I will always defend liberty against fear-mongering politicians.”

And here’s what Amash tweeted after the “Access Hollywood” tape came out: “Character matters. @realDonaldTrump has been saying outrageous, offensive things the whole time. He should have stepped aside long ago.” Also: “As I’ve said all along, I’m not voting for @realDonaldTrump (or @HillaryClinton). It’s time for self-reflection from Trump and @GOP leaders.”

There’s no short-term electoral upside (or downside) for Amash here. His Grand-Rapids-area district leans Republican, but moderately so; he’s not facing a serious challenger this fall; and Michigan’s open primary system will make it difficult for a disgruntled Trumper to challenge him from the right in 2018. At best, Amash is burnishing his cherished “principled libertarian conservative” brand for a future Senate (or presidential) run — although it’s unclear whether that sort brand would actually help him win higher office in Michigan, a blue state or beyond.

The more immediate effect of Amash’s vocal opposition to Trump is that his relationship with the rest of the House Freedom Caucus — which, again, supports Trump en masse — will be likely be somewhat strained from here on out. To break with your closest allies in Congress — and to do it early, and never waver — takes more courage than most other Republicans have mustered.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.-16): Several retiring Republican congressmen dumped Trump long before the “Access Hollywood” controversy: Rep. Reid Ribble of Wisconsin, Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia, Rep. Richard Hanna of New York.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger discusses the party platform on immigration, national security and the challenges facing America’s borders at the RNC headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 20, 2016. (Photo: Eric Hanson for the Washington Post, via Getty Images)

Several Republican senators who are not currently up for re-election did too: Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona.

Likewise, several GOP Senate and House candidates from blue states or districts — where electoral self-interest clearly points away from Trump — bailed early: Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.

But it’s tough to find a Republican who a) dumped Trump pre-tape, b) will actually appear on the ballot in November and c) probably won’t benefit all that much, electorally speaking, from trashing his party’s presidential nominee.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois is one of the few.

Kinzinger had long been a Trump skeptic. In March, he criticized the mogul’s “fourth-grade rhetoric.” In June, he said he wouldn’t vote for Trump if the election “were today” — though he added that he was open to being persuaded. In July, he attended the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, hoping to change his mind. Then Trump told the New York Times that he would only aid NATO allies who paid their bills, and Kinzinger, a former Air Force pilot, dressed him down. “It’s utterly disastrous,” Kinzinger told Politico. But the breaking point was Trump’s post-convention feud with the Gold Star family of fallen U.S. solider Humayun Khan.

“Donald Trump is beginning to cross a lot of red lines of the unforgivable in politics,” Kinzinger told CNN on Aug. 3. “I’m not going to support Hillary, but in America we have the right to skip somebody. That’s what it’s looking like for me today. I don’t see how I get to Donald Trump anymore.”

Kinzinger is running for reelection unopposed. He isn’t desperate to win over swing voters. But it’s worth noting that Illinois’ sprawling 16th congressional district, which hugs exurban Chicago from the Wisconsin border to central Illinois east to the Indiana line, is not only Republican turf — it’s Trump territory.

In 2012, Kinzinger fought a tough primary battle against incumbent Don Manzullo, who was backed by the Illinois tea party. Two years later, he was primaried by Rockford tea party founder David Hale. Conservative websites (RedState.com) and conservative radio hosts (Mark Levin) regularly refer to him as a RINO, a Republican in name only. And the Club for Growth once listed him on its primarymycongressman.com website.

By opposing Trump early — and not out of electoral necessity — Kinzinger is inviting blowback from his constituents and a possible Trumpist challenge in 2018. That suggests some principles at play.

Rep. Martha Roby (Ala.-2): It’s a stretch to describe any of the Republicans who waited until last weekend to dump Trump as particularly brave. The nominee has said plenty of offensive things before; the only difference with the “Access Hollywood” tape is that he was talking about more than 50 percent of the electorate.

Rep. Martha Roby attends a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center, June 28, 2016, to announce the Select Committee on Benghazi report on the 2012 attacks in Libya in which four Americans killed. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/GEtty Images)

But if anyone deserves a little credit, it’s probably Alabama Rep. Martha Roby.

“Donald Trump’s behavior makes him unacceptable as a candidate for president,” Roby tweeted at 7 a.m. Saturday morning, “and I won’t vote for him.”

In a statement attached to her tweet, Roby added that she has been disappointed with Trump’s “antics” throughout the campaign but wanted to support the GOP’s nominee for the good of the party and of the country.

“Now, it is abundantly clear that the best thing for our country and our party is for Trump to step aside and allow a responsible, respectable Republican to lead the ticket,” Roby said. “Hillary Clinton must not be president, but with Trump leading the ticket, she will be.”

The reason Roby stands out from the rest of the recent Donald defectors isn’t that her unendorsement was on the early side, though it was: She was the second member of the House to jump ship after the tape hit the Internet.

The reason Roby stands out is that, unlike most of the pack, she has nothing to gain electorally — she doesn’t have to tack left to win in November — and may, in fact, have something to lose.

Alabama’s second congressional district includes portions of the capital city of Montgomery, the suburban counties of Autauga and Elmore to the north, and the rural, agricultural-based Wiregrass counties to the south. In 2008, John McCain clobbered Barack Obama there by nearly 30 percentage points; four years later, Mitt Romney won by a similar margin. After Republicans recently redrew the boundaries to exclude some heavily African-American areas, it’s become one of America’s 50 most Republican districts.

Roby, meanwhile, is one of the Deep South’s less tea-party-oriented Republican House members. She was an aspiring alternative rock singer during her years at NYU; her Heritage Foundation score is a moderate 51. In this year’s primary, she was challenged by Becky Gerritson, a homeschooling mother and former Wetumpka tea party president who declared Roby “totally out of touch with her constituents.”

In the same primary, Trump won Roby’s district by massive margins. By ditching him now, she is risking another, stronger challenge in two years time.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.-1)

Democrats will say no way: Ryan still endorses Trump, after all, and has since June.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in his office at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 22, 2016. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Sure, he’s been critical. And yes, in a series of recent conference calls with his fellow congressmen, the speaker warned that Democrats could now pick up the 30 House seats they need to take over Congress and announced “that he would never again campaign for Mr. Trump and would dedicate himself instead to defending the party’s majority in Congress.”

“Effectively conceding defeat for his party in the presidential race,” the New York Times reported, “Mr. Ryan said his most urgent task was ensuring that Hillary Clinton did not take the helm with Democratic control of the House and Senate.”

But he didn’t withdraw his endorsement! Democrats will repeat. How principled can he be?

Or as Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s communications director, said Wednesday of party leaders like Ryan, “There was a time when they could have spoken out against Trump. That time was this summer. Obviously, it is too late now.”

Many Republicans will also disagree that Ryan has come out looking good. It’s not brave to abandon your party’s nominee in his time of need, they might argue — especially when all you’re trying to do is preserve your reputation as a “serious conservative” and position yourself for 2020.

None of this is untrue. But consider the game Ryan is playing: a free-falling standard bearer; a majority to protect; and a legislative agenda that he wants to usher into law. It’s not checkers.

In response, Ryan has chosen to defy the Republican National Committee, which is still coordinating with Trump’s campaign. He has created his own, non-Trump electoral operation. And he is telling House Republicans to do whatever it takes to win — including running against the man at the top of the ticket.

It’s hard to argue that this won’t make Ryan’s life more difficult, at least in the short term. Corralling Capitol Hill conservatives is already enough of a challenge. Now many of them are furious.

On Wednesday, Oklahoma GOP Rep. Jim Bridenstine tweeted that he would no longer back Ryan for speaker. “Given the stakes of this election, if Paul Ryan isn’t for Trump, then I’m not for Paul Ryan,” Bridenstine said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Billy Long of Missouri has been calling top Republicans to complain that Ryan’s position could backfire on the House GOP Conference.

“If everyone backs away from our nominee for president, that’s going to spell disaster down ticket,” Long told the Springfield News-Leader. “No one’s seen anything like this election before. It’s a movement, and it’s been a movement since a year ago August.”

The bottom line is that it’s basically impossible for a Republican leader to reconcile his conscience, 469 separate House and Senate elections, and Donald J. Trump without making some difficult compromises. At least Ryan is trying.

Not so principled

Sen. John Thune, Rep. Bradley Byrne, Rep. Scott Garrett, Colorado Senate Candidate Darryl Glenn (Photos: Mark Wilson/Getty Images, Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images, Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP, Brennan Linsley/AP)

Colorado Senate candidate Darryl Glenn, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, Rep. Scott Garrett (N.J.-5), Rep. Bradley Byrne (Ala.-1): It’s one thing to take a stand against Trump in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” flap; it’s another to immediately take back that stand once the controversy looks as if it’s starting to die down.

By reversing course on Trump not once but twice over the past several days, Glenn, Thune, Garrett and Byrne have broken new ground in the ongoing GOP-wide contest to see who can respond to Trump is the most perplexing fashion.

Over the weekend, Byrne flatly said that “it is now clear Donald Trump is not fit to be president of the United States” — then he insisted to reporters on Wednesday that he had always said he would “be a supporter of the Republican ticket from top to bottom.”

“I’m a Republican,” Byrne added. “I don’t vote Democrat.”

On Saturday, Thune became the highest-ranking Republican to call for Trump to quit the presidential race when he tweeted that “Donald Trump should withdraw and Mike Pence should be our nominee effective immediately” — then, on Tuesday, Thune told reporters that, as Keloland TV’s Leland Steva put it, “he plans to check all the boxes of Republicans on his ballot.”

In New Jersey, Garrett also initially called for Pence to lead the party — then said on Tuesday that would still “vote Trump for president if he is the party’s official nominee come Election Day.”

Meanwhile in Colorado, Glenn, a conservative El Paso County commissioner who has embraced Trump in his campaign, at first described the nominee’s “Access Hollywood” remarks as “disgusting and unacceptable” and said over the weekend that Trump was “simply disqualified from being commander in chief.” Then, after Sunday’s presidential debate, Glenn told Fox News that “Trump did what he absolutely had to do,” arguing that he had “reset this campaign.” Finally, during a debate Tuesday with his Democratic opponent, Sen. Michael Bennet, Glenn further muddied the waters, saying that he had merely “suspended [his] endorsement” until Trump visits Colorado to “share his heart and win back my vote.”

Of these four candidates, only Glenn and Garrett are in danger of losing in November; both Thune and Byrne are safe. Either way, when you declare that your party’s nominee is so unacceptable that he should quit the race and then say that you’re going to vote to put him in the White House anyway, electoral math doesn’t really enter into it. That’s unprincipled, no matter how you cut it.

Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey: Like all endangered Senate Republicans, Toomey has struggled with Trump this entire cycle. But the way he has responded to the Manhattan mogul’s near-constant provocations has been unique. While McCain went for anonymity (I support the nominee) and Ayotte split hairs (I’m voting for Trump but not endorsing him) Toomey played the open-minded agnostic.

Sen. Pat Toomey arrives in the Capitol for the Senate Republicans’ policy luncheon on Tuesday, June 28, 2016. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

“As I have said repeatedly, I have not endorsed Donald Trump,” Toomey told reporters at an August press conference. “There are things that he has said, a number of things he has said and done, that give me great pause and I have significant concerns about, so I remain in a mode of waiting to be persuaded. I’ve not made a final decision on what I’m going to do. Hillary Clinton is completely unacceptable to me.”

For months, Toomey’s indecision was at least somewhat believable; as he put it in an April op-ed, “Like many Pennsylvanians, I’m not pleased with the two choices we have.” But you can only believe that a person is “waiting to be persuaded” if you believe that something — anything — could persuade him one way or the other. Otherwise, he’s not waiting — he’s running out the clock.

Toomey’s response to the Trump tape — a tipping point for dozens of other Republicans — finally makes it obvious that this is exactly what he’s trying to do: hoping that, by remaining agnostic all the way through Nov. 8, he can quietly glide past his Democratic challenger, Katie McGinty, without angering the GOP base or alienating the moderate suburban voters who tend to decide Pennsylvania’s elections.

“I am not endorsing him,” Toomey said Tuesday during a brief interview with reporters — “and I remain unpersuaded.”

The same day, the Philadelphia Inquirer tried to call Toomey’s bluff.

“This late in the game, should we just presume he’s never going to take a stand on Trump?” the paper asked in an editorial piece, then answered its own question: “’You shouldn’t make a presumption one way or the other,’ Toomey replied.”

On the stump, McGinty likes to tell Toomey to “man up.” Her campaign calls him “’Fraidy-Pat.”

They may have a point.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio: When most Republicans act all wishy-washy on Trump, they at least have plausible deniability. They can say they’re not quite sure about him because it’s impossible to know how they really feel inside (even if you have your suspicions.)

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., talks with a reporter aboard the Senate subway after a vote in the Capitol, on Sept. 15, 2016. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

That is not the case with Rubio.

As you may recall, the Florida senator spent much of 2015 and 2016 running for the Republican presidential nomination. During that time, as the Washington Post has noted, Rubio called Donald Trump a “con man,” a “racist” and a “xenophobe” who was “dangerous” and unqualified to control the nation’s nuclear codes. He ridiculed the businessman’s manhood and warned he would “fracture” the conservative movement if he were the nominee. At one point, Rubio called Trump the “most vulgar person to ever aspire to the presidency.” By March — a few days before Rubio dropped out — the senator was saying, his voice breaking, that it was “getting harder every day” to envision supporting his rival.

Then, in May, Rubio endorsed Trump.

Since then, Rubio has criticized Trump again and again — but he has never broken with him. The “Access Hollywood” tape hasn’t changed that pattern.

On Friday, Rubio tweeted that “Donald’s comments were vulgar, egregious & impossible to justify,” adding that “no one should ever talk about any woman in those terms, even in private.” But on Tuesday he said in a statement that while “I disagree with [Trump] on many things … I disagree with his opponent on virtually everything.”

“I do not want Hillary Clinton to be our next president,” Rubio concluded. “And therefore my position has not changed.”

Rubio’s official position is only different from other Republicans’ in one way: He has already done the difficult work of telling voters how he really feels about the possibility of a Trump presidency. Whatever his reasoning — he’s worried about losing his lead over Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy if Trump fans stay home in November? He wants to play all the angles for a possible 2020 presidential run? — the fact that Rubio is still pretending to be pro-Trump when everyone knows otherwise only reinforces the idea that he’s an overly cautious shape-shifter who’s afraid to stand on principle.

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