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Why do establishment Republicans return to Trump?

a shift in thought

Less than a week after several GOP officials called for Donald Trump to step down from the ticket, some have decided to back him again. What do they stand to gain?

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    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Ocala, Fla., Wednesday.
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After publicly repudiating Donald Trump, some Republicans have reclaimed their spots behind the candidate, saying they still plan to vote for him in spite of recent revelations. 

In an increasingly unconventional election year, partisanship hasn’t proved as strong of a tie as it once did. A quarter of elected Republican officials, along with a growing list of prominent conservatives – most recently commentator Glenn Back – have sided with the “Never Trump” movement. A few have even endorsed Hillary Clinton’s run for president.

The group of outspoken Republicans has cited the businessman’s brash rhetoric and unorthodox attacks on others as factors that make him unfit to serve as president. Dozens of party members who had previously pledged their support to Mr. Trump changed their tune after The Washington Post unearthed a decade-old recording in which he boasted of his aggressive and nonconsensual sexual conduct with women.

But as the dust settles, it seems that not everyone who decried the candidate’s remarks plans to follow through on denouncing him entirely. For some, speaking out against Trump may be about protecting their own image, but defaulting back to the party’s ticket allows them to maintain vital ties in Congress.

"They take risks either way. If they don’t say something, then they’re going to take heat," Donald Green, a political science professor at Columbia University, tells The Christian Science Monitor. But if they do call for Trump to step off the ticket, he continues, "they’re making a calculated gamble ... that he’ll be replaced by Pence, a more palatable conservative."

That’s the odd middle ground where several Republican officials and candidates find themselves this week.

“The comments made by Mr. Trump were disgusting and totally unacceptable under any circumstance,” Sen. Deb Fischer (R) of Nebraska tweeted on Saturday. “It would be wise for him to step aside and allow Mike Pence to serve as our party's nominee.”

But on Tuesday she backtracked, telling KILN radio in Nebraska that she will vote for Trump in November.

"He decided he would not step aside. I respect his decision," she said. "I support the Republican ticket and it's a Trump-Pence ticket." 

Sen. John Thune (R) of South Dakota faced a similar dilemma after calling for Trump to step down on Twitter. He, too, decided to remain among Trump’s voting bloc. Then Darryl Glenn, a Republican candidate running for a Colorado Senate seat, swayed his position similarly.

“America cannot have a man who speaks this way about women be the face of our country to the Free World,” Mr. Glenn said Friday, according to the Washington Post. Days later, he told Fox News that he supported Trump again, citing what he saw as a strong performance by the Republican in Sunday night’s debate.

“They called for Pence to take the top of the ticket,” Professor Green says. “They thought at the time that they could make a virtue out of upending Trump. Now that Trump has dug in, they’re kind of out on an island.”

The Republican party has splintered around the divisive candidate since he first began gaining traction among voters more than a year ago. Congressional Democrats, on the other hand, have rallied in a unified fashion around Mrs. Clinton for the most part. 

For Republicans who have given less-than-enthusiastic endorsements to Trump, or even shifted their stances, there’s an opportunity to stand in line with the post-2016 Republican party, whatever form it takes. If brazen Trump supporters make up the party’s majority, they can find favor in the crowd for supporting the candidate. But if the party takes a more moderate, traditionally conservative shape next year, they’ll be among those who condemned Trump’s racist and sexist rhetoric.  

Other defectors and non-endorsers, like New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte or Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, are skirting the lines of party loyalty to save their own campaigns. In their battleground states, where attracting moderates remains a key campaign plan, Senator Ayotte has formally denounced Trump, while Senator Toomey has refused to come to a public conclusion.

“Fingers are up in the wind,” Green says. “People who are not up for re-election are trying to figure out which faction of the Republican party will have the upper hand after 2016.”

And then there's pressure from voters. As a candidate who has brought first-time and disenfranchised voters to the forefront in massive numbers, Trump has proven he can mobilize a passionate group of people. It's likely these Republicans may have to vie for their party's new factions if they want to keep voters happy.

"These people have a lot of constituents who are deeply offended by Trump’s behavior – hence the incentive to distance themselves from him," Larry Bartels, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, tells the Monitor in an email. "They also have a lot of constituents who strongly support Trump and view defection as disloyalty. I would guess that the reversals were prompted by finding more (and more passionate) people in the second camp than they’d expected."

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