Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Republicans play risky game down ballot

Republicans play risky game down ballot
Published 12 Oct 2016 

Would you jump off a roller coaster ride as the car picked up speed downhill?

Probably not.

But that's just what dozens of Republican candidates did over the weekend as Donald Trump's presidential campaign seemingly imploded over a decade-old audio tape.

The details of Trump's 'locker room' banter have been widely reported. His explanation was weak; he said he apologized to his family but offered no apology to voters.

Republican candidates who had supported Trump, as well as those employing a more muddled, middle ground strategy of maintaining some distance from the dumpster fire , were asked tough questions.

And they chose to jump in droves.

Now, to be fair, the atmosphere was supercharged. There were reports of the GOP trying to remove Trump from its ticket. Almost half of the elected Republican governors and members of Congress had condemned their party's presidential candidate. Many withdrew their support, particularly those in close races. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, who endured a similar scandal while running for governor of California, denounced The Donald.

Trump felt obliged to say he would not step aside. And he trudged on to Monday's debate where he employed his usual strategy – he doubled down. Hillary Clinton, he told us, was the 'devil' and when he became president he'd jail her.

That sent the pundits into the archives. No, nobody had ever gone there, they assured voters.

But when the sun came up, Trump was still standing and his supporters were busily arguing he'd won the debate.

In effect, he had proved the claim he made last January: 'I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters'. Now he'd admitted sexually assaulting women, gone nuclear on his opponent, and rubbed her nose in her husband's sexual exploits.
And the polls indicated his support barely wavered.

So now what?

The Republican Party has waved the white flag on the presidency. The focus has shifted to minimising Trump's negative effect on Senate and House races.

But that's tricky. [fold]

I live in Nevada, one of the swing states with a tight Senate race (just five seats – or four, if Clinton wins – need to change hands to deliver the Democrats a majority) that may well determine which party holds control of the government. I have a front-row seat – and a vote – as the melodrama plays out.

Republican Joe Heck, a physician with a military pedigree, is trying to move up from the House and take the seat being relinquished by Harry Reid, long-time Democratic Senate leader. He is opposed by a former state attorney general, Catherine Cortez Masto, who is a Reid protégé.

By all accounts, it is a close race with Heck holding a slim lead. At least that was the case before Heck decided to dump Trump.

Cortez Masto had been running TV ads in which Heck says he's fully behind Trump and has no qualms about the billionaire having his finger on the nuclear button.

Heck must have had those images in his head as he contemplated reversing course. But when he acted, he was decisive: He condemned Trump; he said he couldn't vote for Trump; he called on Trump to withdraw.

But if Trump loyalists were not shaken by the sexist rant nor by the debate performance, had Heck misread the room?

It's hard to believe Heck's late denunciation of Trump will win him many votes from undecided voters. But it might just cost him the votes of some true believers upset at his defection from the side of the true believers.

The entire bit of theatre would be comic if were not so important. Control of the Senate may well hang in the balance on this one seat. This is the chamber that could moderate Clinton's choice of a judge for the Supreme Court or encourage her to go further left with her selection. It's the body that ratifies treaties too.

We're a badly divided country moving toward giving a wildly disliked candidate not just a win but a mandate to lead.

No wonder the world watches us with alternating alarm and bemusement.

Please be assured, we see ourselves the same way. We just can't find a better way to do democracy.

Photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

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