Wary of Donald Trump, G.O.P. Leaders Are Caught in a Standoff

WASHINGTON — For months, much of the Republican Party’s establishment has been uneasy about the rise of Donald J. Trump, concerned that he was overwhelming the presidential primary contest and encouraging other candidates to mimic his incendiary speech. Now, though, irritation is giving way to panic as it becomes increasingly plausible that Mr. Trump could be the party’s standard-bearer and imperil the careers of other Republicans.

Wary of Donald Trump, G.O.P. Leaders Are Caught in a Standoff
Many leading Republican officials, strategists and donors now say they fear that Mr. Trump’s nomination would lead to an electoral wipeout, a sweeping defeat that could undo some of the gains Republicans have made in recent congressional, state and local elections. But in a party that lacks a true leader or anything in the way of consensus — and with the combative Mr. Trump certain to scorch anyone who takes him on — a fierce dispute has arisen about what can be done to stop his candidacy and whether anyone should even try.

Some of the highest-ranking Republicans in Congress and some of the party’s wealthiest and most generous donors have balked at trying to take down Mr. Trump because they fear a public feud with the insult-spewing media figure. Others warn that doing so might backfire at a time of soaring anger toward political insiders.

That has led to a standoff of sorts: Almost everyone in the party’s upper echelons agrees something must be done, and almost no one is willing to do it.

With his knack for offending the very constituencies Republicans have struggled with in recent elections, women and minorities, Mr. Trump could be a millstone on his party if he won the nomination. He is viewed unfavorably by 64 percent of women and 74 percent of nonwhite voters, according to a November ABC News/Washington Post poll. Such unpopularity could not only doom his candidacy in November but also threaten the party’s tenuous majority in the Senate, hand House seats to the Democrats and imperil Republicans in a handful of governor’s races
In states with some of the most competitive Senate contests, the concern is palpable, especially after weeks in which Mr. Trump has made a new series of inflammatory statements.

“If he carries this message into the general election in Ohio, we’ll hand this election to Hillary Clinton — and then try to salvage the rest of the ticket,” said Matt Borges, chairman of the Republican Party there, where Senator Rob Portman is facing a competitive re-election.
Pat Brady, the former state Republican chairman in Illinois, where Senator Mark S. Kirk is also locked in a difficult campaign, was even more direct. “If he’s our nominee, the repercussions of that in this state would be devastating,” Mr. Brady said.

Another Republican strategist in Ohio replied to an email asking about Mr. Trump’s effect in the state by sending a link to a Wikipedia page on the 1964 congressional elections, when Barry Goldwater’s presence atop the Republican ticket led the party to lose 36 House seats.

In Washington, many of the party’s top operatives believe that there is no way even the strongest Senate candidates could overcome the tide if Mr. Trump were leading the ticket.

“Senator Portman is a great example I like to use when talking about this,” said Brian Walsh, a Senate campaign veteran. “He’s very well prepared, has tons of cash in the bank, and he got his campaign organized and up and running early. But if we nominate a bad presidential candidate like Trump, senators like Portman or Kelly Ayotte aren’t going to be able to outrun Hillary by that much. And there goes the Senate.”

Asked about concerns over Mr. Trump’s potential influence on other contests, his spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, said, “I think the facts indicate the exact opposite is true,” and emailed a link to a consumer marketing firm’s assertion that Mr. Trump would ensure the highest general election turnout from Republicans, Democrats and independents alike.

Yet the clamor for a “Stop Trump” effort has become pervasive at the Senate’s highest levels, where members up for re-election are realizing that they can no longer dismiss as strictly theoretical the possibility of his capturing the nomination. Mr. Trump’s persistent ranking at or near the top of the polls is prompting urgent calls for an advertising assault to try to sink his campaign.
“It would be an utter, complete and total disaster,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, himself a presidential candidate who has tangled with Mr. Trump, said of his rival’s effect on lower-tier Republican candidates. “If you’re a xenophobic, race-baiting, religious bigot, you’re going to have a hard time being president of the United States, and you’re going to do irreparable damage to the party.”

Mr. Graham recounted separate phone calls with two of the party’s most sought-after donors last week, people who he insisted not be named but who give tens of millions of dollars to Republicans every election year. He said they had expressed alarm at Mr. Trump’s durability and asked what could be done.

“I said, ‘If you care about the future of the Republican Party, and you want to have a viable Republican Party, you better start moving,’” Mr. Graham said. “If they don’t push back, they’ll have nobody to blame but themselves.”

But the same reason the senator insisted on anonymity explains why, just two months before the Iowa caucuses, there has been no such ad campaign: To step up in that way would be to invite the wrath of Mr. Trump, who relishes belittling his critics.

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