As Panic Spreads, Embattled GOP Senate Candidates Call for Trump to Withdraw

As Panic Spreads, Embattled GOP Senate Candidates Call for Trump to Withdraw

LAS VEGAS — “Douchebag!” shouted an elderly white man while another woman booed so loudly she nearly drowned out GOP Rep. Joe Heck as he soldiered on at the small rally in a Nevada stripmall, urging Donald Trump to withdraw from the presidential race after Friday’s release of a damning tape of the GOP nominee.

“I can no longer support Donald Trump,” Heck said, reading a statement. “I believe our only choice is to ask him to step down.”

Just minutes later Heck braved the crowd for supportive selfies and handshakes as other supporters wearing Trump T-shirts stood muttering and glaring in small groups.

“I think it’s going to be up to the other candidates to make the decision about what’s best for this country,” Heck told Foreign Policy of other down-ballot Republicans in battleground-state elections. “I had to do what was right, not what was going to affect the race.”

The astounding scene is likely to be repeated across the country in the hours before the second presidential debate on Sunday, as well as in the remaining four weeks before Election Day on Nov. 8. GOP leaders and Republican candidates like Heck who are battling for a U.S. Senate seat in swing states are fleeing en masse from their suddenly toxic nominee in the wake of a video catching Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women.

After the Washington Post broke the story Friday evening, Heck and his campaign mulled whether to disavow Trump. He made the decision Saturday morning, Heck’s spokesman told FP,  before his rally with Sen. Dean Heller, the junior Nevada senator, and former GOP nominee Mitt Romney.   

Trump has so far refused to step down, telling the Washington Post Saturday morning in a phone call from Trump Tower in New York: “I’d never withdraw. I’ve never withdrawn in my life.”

Later Saturday, he tweeted:

In a rare video response released late Friday — following an earlier defiant statement in which he dismissed the report as a “distraction” — Trump gave a non-apology. He said the 2005 comments — in which he said “when you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything,” including “grab them by the pussy” — “don’t reflect who I am.” But then, true to form, he launched into an attack on former Democratic President Bill Clinton, ending, “See you at the debate on Sunday.”

Heck, a one-star Army general and doctor who’s served in the lower chamber of the U.S. Congress since 2010, is outperforming Trump in this Southwestern battleground, as the Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton leads by 1.2 points, according to a Real Clear Politics polling average.

Heck holds a narrow lead of 3.4 points here in Nevada in his Senate race against Catherine Cortez Masto, according to Real Clear Politics’ average. Heck has emphasized his security credentials against Cortez Masto, the former Nevada attorney general and hand-picked successor to retiring Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic minority leader. If elected, she would become the first Latina U.S. senator. Theirs is one of the most competitive races in the country in 2016 — and one which could well decide whether the Republicans hold onto their slim majority in the U.S. Senate.

But Nevada Republicans are still trying to climb out of the wreckage of Friday night. The Nevada headquarters of the RNC — just across the parking lot from the rally — closed their door. Staffers wouldn’t comment on their position on Trump, or Heck’s disavowal. The state RNC spokesperson did not respond to a request from FP.

Fellow Republicans seem to be making a similar calculation: Heck’s announcement followed a statement from New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte Saturday saying she would write in Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. Days ago, she said in her own debate against New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan that Trump was a role model for her children, though she’d already been forced to walk back that statement the next day. Ayotte leads by 2.3 points, while Trump is down in the state, with Clinton leading by 5.2 points, according to Real Clear Politics.

Many other Republicans weren’t willing — yet — to go as far as Heck. After the Washington Post broke the story about Trump’s latest denigration of women, Republican power brokers from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus rejected his words but did not retract their support for his candidacy.

Ryan, who initially hesitated before endorsing Trump earlier this year, disinvited his party’s nominee from an appearance Saturday in Wisconsin, but did not say he was withdrawing his support or asking Trump to leave the ticket.  

Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, enjoying a comfortable lead of 16 points in his reelection bid in Arizona, still seemed to urge voters not to hold down-ballot Republicans responsible, saying Friday night, “He alone bears the burden of his conduct and alone should suffer the consequences.” Trump, who said McCain was “not a hero” because he got shot down and was taken prisoner of war and tortured in Vietnam, currently leads Clinton by only 0.7 points in Arizona.

On Saturday evening, McCain added in a second statement that he was withdrawing his support, citing his selection as the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee as the reason for his initial hesitation.

“Donald Trump’s behavior this week, concluding with the disclosure of his demeaning comments about women and his boasts about sexual assaults, make it impossible to continue to offer even conditional support for his candidacy,” McCain said, continuing that he and his wife won’t vote for Trump. “I have never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate and we will not vote for Hillary Clinton. We will write in the name of some good conservative Republican who is qualified to be President.”

Later Friday night, Trump confirmed he would not attend the Wisconsin event Saturday, saying that he would do debate preparation instead with Priebus.

Some 24 hours from a debate that was intended to be about foreign policy, the RNC is instead facing an existential crisis. The committee has not responded to the growing calls for Trump to withdraw from the race altogether, though reports said party leaders met late Friday night for frantic discussions about what their options are. Politico reported later Saturday the RNC has stopped, at least temporarily, its “Victory” project dedicated to electing Trump.  

But there are practical hurdles to ditching a candidate that many now want to run away from. It is too late to remove Trump’s name from the ballot, and many states have already begun early voting. In Nevada, for example, the deadline for registering to vote is Oct. 18; early voting begins Oct. 22.

It is far from the first time Trump has insulted or described violence against women and minority groups. Furthermore, he’s also made other controversial statements, from inviting Russian hackers to cyber-attack Clinton’s digital correspondence, to suggesting the use of nuclear weapons in the fight against ISIS, to advocating torture and war crimes. These comments had already led many other Republicans, especially those prominent in national security circles, to disavow their nominee and pledge support for Clinton, inviting personal attacks from Trump.

On Saturday evening, former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice, one of the few prominent GOP foreign policy leaders who had yet to weigh in, issued a cutting statement against Trump.

Among the vindicated are Heller and Romney. Heller, who has pushed back against Trump’s comments throughout the campaign, told FP after the event he agreed with Heck that Trump should step down.

Romney, the former nominee, stood relaxed in sneakers and jeans, smiling, as Heck read his statement.

Then Romney took the stage after being introduced as “the man I wish was on the ballot.” He rejected Trump’s comments and expressed his support for Heck and the others who withdrew their endorsements from the current nominee. He then launched into a familiar stump speech about how the Obama administration’s foreign policy had emboldened adversaries such as Russia, which Romney pointedly warned about during his own 2012 run.

He said he hasn’t spoken out about the presidential race since his March speech, in which he called Trump a “fraud” and a danger to U.S. security — and slammed his insults to women and minorities — but felt he had to do so again now. Other candidates, Romney said, will have to weigh their consciences for themselves.

“What was said and what was done was so far over the line I felt honor-bound as an American to speak out,” Romney told FP.

Did he wake up this morning thinking what could’ve been?

“No, no, no. I don’t look back, I look forward,” he said.

As for what the GOP should do now, he said, “I’m going to leave that to the party.”

Credit: The Washington Post / Contributor

This is a developing story and it has been updated.