USA TODAY - The now-infamous tape of Donald Trump making lewd comments about women is almost sure to hurt vulnerable Republican senators battling for re-election, making it harder for the GOP to retain control of the Senate on Election Day, analysts said Monday.
"There's no way Republicans come out ahead on this," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Monday shows that voters now favor Democrats over Republicans for Congress by 7 percentage points — Democrats' biggest lead in that metric since the October 2013 government shutdown that most voters blamed on the GOP. The new poll was taken after the Trump tape became public, but before Sunday night's debate between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
"Donald Trump only cares about Donald Trump," Pitney said. "He doesn't care what he's doing to Republicans in Congress."
Trump proved that during Sunday night's debate, analysts said, when he defiantly dismissed his 2005 comments about grabbing women's genitals as "locker room talk" and denied that he was bragging about sexual assault.
The GOP nominee has once again put vulnerable Republican senators and candidates in the tough position of having to choose whether to anger die-hard Trump supporters or the independent voters they will need to win re-election, said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno.
"They risk alienating the most loyal Trump supporters if they denounce him," Herzik said. "And they're still going to be criticized by Democrats for supporting him for months. I don't think you can walk back your support for Trump at this point and actually gain voters. The best you can hope for is you might limit the bleeding."
Republicans currently hold 54 seats in the 100 seat Senate; if Hillary Clinton wins the White House, Democrats need capture only four GOP seats to retake control, since the Democratic Vice President would break ties in their favor.
Republican Senate candidates have been rushing to do that since the tape of Trump making the lewd comments became public on Friday afternoon.
Among the GOP senators and candidates in competitive races who have rescinded their endorsements of Trump: Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, John McCain of Arizona and Rob Portman of Ohio. Rep. Joe Heck, who is running for the open Senate seat in Nevada that is being vacated by retiring Minority Leader Harry Reid, also took back his support of Trump.
When Heck announced his decision Saturday at a campaign rally, he was booed by some Trump loyalists.
"They called him traitor," Herzik said. "That's the risk you take."
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., denounced both Trump and Clinton in his latest comments while stopping short of saying whether he will vote for Trump on Nov. 8.
"Sadly, last night’s debate again showed the shortcomings of both presidential candidates," Toomey said in a statement Monday. "I have not endorsed Donald Trump and I have repeatedly spoken out against his flawed policies and his outrageous comments, including his indefensible and appalling comments about women."
However, Toomey also denounced Clinton and his Democratic challenger, Katie McGinty, in the same statement.
"Katie McGinty has yet to say a single word against Hillary Clinton's disastrous policies that have endangered our country, her widespread dishonesty, or the corruption of her behavior with the Clinton Foundation," Toomey said.
McGinty called on Toomey to "man up" and oppose Trump.
Pitney said the best thing a Republican candidate can do in this difficult situation is to tell voters how they truly feel about Trump instead of trying to straddle the political line.
"If you really support Trump, then say so," the professor said. "If you don't, then tell the truth. In a campaign, insincerity shows. You may alienate some people by being honest, but at least you don't look like a jerk."
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told his Republican colleagues in a phone call Monday that he would no longer defend Trump but would focus on trying to hold onto the GOP majorities in the House and Senate. Ryan did not rescind his endorsement of Trump.
"The speaker is going to spend the next month focused entirely on protecting our congressional majorities," said Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong.
While that strategy may sound good, it's nearly impossible to carry out successfully, said Grant Reeher, a political science professor and director of the Alan K. Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University. Republican and independent voters who are turned off by Trump may stay home on election day rather than showing up just to help congressional candidates, Reeher said.
"The problem with (Ryan's strategy) is that the presidential election is still the best leverage point to motivate voters to turn out at the polls," Reeher said. "If the Republicans try to turn this election into an off-year election, it's going to work against them."
Senate Republicans should not be surprised that Trump doesn't care about their races since he's been running against the GOP establishment all along, Reeher said.
"His attitude toward them in the last debate was: 'You think I've been too extreme? Watch this.' "
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