Most Trump Defectors Aren’t Running for 2016 Cover

Majority of his swollen roster of congressional GOP opponents have safe seats

The list of Republicans in Congress who oppose GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump is mostly populated with lawmakers who are safe bets for re-election in November. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
The list of Republicans in Congress who oppose GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump is mostly populated with lawmakers who are safe bets for re-election in November. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 13, 2016 at 5:00am

As he continues fomenting the Great Republican Civil War of 2016, one of Donald Trump’s myriad outraged narratives is this: Everyone in the growing posse of his congressional opponents has turned tail for shortsighted and selfish reasons.

Like so many other times during the Trump campaign, what he’s emphatically asserting is not supported by the facts.

The number of Republicans in Congress publicly opposed to the election of their own presidential candidate has grown to a remarkable size — 16 (or 30 percent) of the GOP senators and 37 (or 15 percent) of the House Republican Conference. The roster has also grown remarkably fast, quadrupling in length since last Friday’s release of a 2005 video in which Trump describes sexually forcing himself on women.

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But the list is not dominated by lawmakers obviously motivated by the demands of short-term political self-preservation — contrary to the conventional wisdom Trump is seeking to create.

The exposé of Trump’s vulgar boasting, more than any of his earlier outrageous statements, may be not only crippling his campaign without sufficient time for a recovery, but also expanding the Democratic window of opportunity for congressional gains.

And it’s plain that down-ballot GOP candidates won’t be helped by the extraordinary GOP discord at the top, with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan saying he’s done defending Trump and the presidential standard-bearer labeling the Capitol’s highest-ranking Republican “weak and ineffective.”

Mostly safe bets

But those realities have not been the rationale for most members of the Never Trump Club on the Hill. Instead, it’s mostly populated with lawmakers who are safe bets for re-election Nov. 8, no matter how badly things go at the top of the ticket, along with senators who won’t face the voters again for two or four years.

(Lawmakers have made the list by withdrawing earlier endorsements, declaring they won’t vote for Trump or urging him to renounce the nomination. A few started rhetorically clawing their way back into the Trump fold this week after running away from him over the weekend.)

Only five of the 10 Republicans in competitive Senate races have openly repudiated Trump: Rep. Joe Heck, seeking the open seat in Nevada, and incumbents Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, John McCain of Arizona and Rob Portman of Ohio.

Roy Blunt of Missouri, Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Marco Rubio of Florida are in hot contests but say they’re still standing with Trump, while Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania won’t say whether his withholding of an endorsement means he’ll vote against the nominee.

The share of electorally vulnerable House members who have spurned Trump is higher, but still short of lopsided: Thirteen say they do not support him but eight have stayed by his side — and, remarkably, five of those are seeking re-election in districts carried by President Barack Obama last time: Rod Blum and David Young of Iowa, Frank C. Guinta of New Hampshire, Bruce Poliquin of Maine and Lee Zeldin of New York.

Senators with a slightly longer political timeline seem generally unconcerned that remaining in the Trump tent now could harm them later, either in a primary or a general election. Only eight Republicans are up for re-election in 2018 and only two have snubbed Trump.

Arizona’s Jeff Flake has been a tart critic since the spring but didn’t definitively spurn the candidate until the weekend.

That’s when Nebraska’s Deb Fischer joined those urging Trump to get out of the race. But now that it’s clear that is not happening, she’s changed her tune and promised to vote for the GOP ticket.

Flake’s home state is rapidly becoming more competitive at the presidential level, and that puts him in another smaller-than-may-be-expected subgroup: Only two-fifths of the anti-Trump lawmakers (21 of them) come from states with electoral votes up for grabs, where spurning the nominee might arguably be the smartest tactic for a GOP lawmaker looking to appear more “purple.”

The gender gap

There’s a decided gender gap among the Republicans lawmakers repudiating Trump, who bragged in the “Access Hollywood” recording that he kisses women and grabs their genitalia without their consent because “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

Just 9 percent of the Republican men holding office on the Hill have abandoned Trump. The same is true of 43 percent of the party’s female lawmakers, a sizable bloc but not even half their number.

Counting Fischer, this group includes five of the six senators — the exception is freshman Joni Ernst of Iowa, who made Trump’s long list of running-mate options this summer — but only seven of the 22 House members. (Reflecting a potential generation gap in reactions to boorish behavior by men in public life, the House group includes three of the four youngest women, the exception being Elise Stefanik of New York, but only three women older than 41.)  

One statistic that pops out after reading the entire list of names: Half the 14 Republicans who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are on it, including four of the six members of the all-Mormon delegation from Utah.

Trump finished a distant third in the state’s caucuses, which GOP operatives ascribed in large measure to Trump’s religiously intolerant statements about Muslims, anathema to Mormons who are the majority of religious adherents in Utah and recall their own history of faith-based persecution.

Polling since the caucuses has shown a steady erosion in support for Trump — climaxing with a survey, published in Wednesday’s Deseret News, showing him deadlocked with Hillary Clinton at 26 percent with independent Evan McMullin, a Utah native and former top staffer for the House GOP leadership, closing in at 22 percent.

The GOP defections from the state’s Hill contingent, it seems, may have been a leading indicator of one of the biggest Electoral College upsets in the making. Utah has gone Republican for president in a dozen consecutive elections.