Republican leaders in Congress have gone to great lengths to stay out of the race for the GOP presidential nominee. But that forbearance is showing signs of slipping.
On Tuesday, Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin condemned "bigotry" without naming Donald Trump. The comments came after Mr. Trump refused on Sunday to disavow former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who supports the Trump campaign. Trump later said he didn’t understand the interviewer because of a faulty earpiece, insisting that he does disavow Mr. Duke.
“If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican party, there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry,” the speaker said.
“This party does not prey on people’s prejudices. We appeal to their highest ideals. This is the party of Lincoln,” he said.
Recently, similar comments from Republicans have been coming to the surface – expressing concern about Trump's divisive rhetoric yet vowing support for the ultimate nominee.
Yet as primary voters head to the polls in 11 states, those two instincts are coming into sharper conflict. Indeed, on a Super Tuesday when Donald Trump looks set to haul in a gold mine of delegates – perhaps enough to essentially decide the nomination – that "impossible conundrum" between party loyalty and what many see as being best for the party is looming over the GOP like never before.
“What are they going to say? They’ll vote for Hillary Clinton? It’s a pretty hard choice,” says Kyle Kondik, political analyst and managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Mr. Kondik says he thinks a lot of Republicans “hope they can influence the process somehow and prevent him from getting the nomination.”
He points out that many Republicans didn’t like conservative Barry Goldwater in 1964 yet said they would support him. He lost in a landslide to Democrat Lyndon Johnson.
Mr. Ryan has made a point of not commenting on the nominees, so his remarks on Tuesday suggest just how concerned Republicans on the Hill have become about Trump. Last December, when Trump called for a temporary ban on all Muslims as an antiterrorism measure, Ryan again felt compelled to comment. “This is not conservatism,” the new speaker said at the time. Banning Muslims “is not what this country stands for.”
The speaker’s warning on Tuesday followed cautionary comments Monday by Senate majority whip John Cornyn (R) of Texas that Trump was an “albatross” around the “down ballot” races in the party. Senator Cornyn was, until Ryan, the highest ranking Republican on the Hill to speak out against Trump. Texas is one of the Super Tuesday states and the home state of Trump’s conservative competitor Sen. Ted Cruz, who is in a last-ditch effort to stop Trump.
So far, only one senator – Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, whose state votes Tuesday – has endorsed Trump, as well as four House Republican members.
At a press conference Tuesday, the Republican Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, also strongly condemned David Duke and the KKK, amid talk of a presidential candidate's "seeming ambiguity" about both. He did not, however, deny reports that he told Republican senators they could drop Trump "like a hot rock" if they needed to -- saying simply he had never made such comments to the media.
Many Republicans on the Hill worry about Trump’s divisiveness in the party and see his coarse comments as a turn-off to voters in the general election. They also say he’s not a conservative, and doesn’t represent Republican ideals.
Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska wrote an open letter to Trump supporters on Sunday night in which the senator says he will not vote for Trump if he’s the nominee and will probably seek a third candidate who is a “conservative option, a Constitutionalist.”
Senator Sasse is the first Republican senator to say he will not vote for Trump.
Other conservative Republicans in Congress are not following his lead. Ryan repeated on Tuesday that he would support whoever the nominee is, echoing Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
On Tuesday morning, one of the most conservative members of the House, Rep. Trent Franks (R) of Arizona, lambasted Trump for his inexperience in government and lack of conservative credentials. But when asked whether he would vote for him if he were the nominee, he answered that he would.
“If he’s the nominee I will be in an impossible conundrum, because we cannot, as conservatives, trust Donald Trump to do the right thing, but we positively can trust Hillary Clinton to do the wrong thing.”