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Trump support puts Republican candidates in a bind

REUTERS and Andrew Harnik/AP

With the party’s standard-bearer down in the polls, what’s a Republican politician to do, particularly those who have already endorsed Donald Trump?

Some have thrown Trump overboard, such as New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who is in the midst of a tough battle for reelection. Others, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Rudy Guiliani, have made it clear that they’ll remain loyal to the nominee.

Others, however, find themselves in a unique doublebind, and are trying to find a way to keep Trump supporters happy while still distancing themselves from the increasingly toxic business man.

“You all need to do what’s best for you in your district,” is how Speaker Paul Ryan put it last week to Republican House members faced with the possibility of a Trump implosion that could hurt down-ballot candidates. That was just after a video revealed Trump seemingly bragging about sexually assaulting women in 2005. 

However, Ryan stopped short of withdrawing his own, albeit tepid, endorsement of Trump. And he remained a Trump endorser even as numerous women came forward to say the GOP nominee had sexually assaulted him.

Continuing to support Trump, even nominally, is not based on Ryan’s own survival (he is very popular in congressional district in southeastern Wisconsin and is safe for reelection in November). Instead, his support has more to do with the fact that he’s highest ranking elected Republican official in the country, and maintaining some semblance of cohesion within the party is essential to protecting the GOP majorities in Congress.

So far, Ryan’s endorsement is having the effect it was likely intended to have, preventing Trump from going on an all out revolt against the party that nominated him. While Trump still criticizes Republicans like Ryan, Trump hasn’t called on backers to withdraw their support from down-ballot Republicans, essentially declaring himself an independent candidate “unshackled” completely from the party.

Charlie Sykes, an influential anti-Trump conservative radio host in Wisconsin and a supporter of Ryan, empathized with the Speaker’s current position.

“They are worried that a complete non-endorsement would lead to open civil war and that many of the Trump voters would turn on their fellow Republicans,” Sykes told CBS News. “The concern is that the Trump supporters might abandon the rest of the ticket or stay home, which would make an already awful situation much worse. The problem is that Paul Ryan is now getting the worst of both worlds: he is being attacked by the hard-core Trumpkins for disloyalty, while also being criticized by others for not taking a strong enough anti-Trump stand.”

“He is in his own personal political hell,” Sykes added.

That hell for Ryan has included taking a barrage of insults and attacks from Trump on Twitter, cable news interviews, and at his rallies over the last week.

Ryan, for his part, has not responded in kind, instead absorbing the wrath of Trump -- and, in effect, shielding other members from much of the collateral damage. 

In two public events in his district in Wisconsin last week, along with a radio interview, Ryan did not mention Donald Trump once by name, instead talking more generally about the stakes of the election and maintaining a Republican majority.

While there are Republicans who may not be in open conflict with Trump, like Ryan, there are definitely those that are conflicted, still making real time political calculations about how to proceed - with or without their nominee. Several politicians even jumped off the bandwagon before getting back on the Trump train after the second debate.

Senator Richard Burr is the perfect example of what this Trump conundrum looks like. 

The two-term Republican finds himself locked in a close fight with a relatively unknown former Democratic state legislator named Deborah Ross. And with Congress up for grabs, what happens to Burr could decide who controls the Senate come November. 

Burr endorsed Trump in early May but has only appeared with him once on the campaign trail - a rally in Burr’s hometown of Winston-Salem in July - and long before any of the most recent controversies.

Since then, Burr has kept Trump at arm’s length.

The release of Trump’s 2005 lewd comments did not help Burr’s already precarious situation. His initial statement condemned Trump’s comments labeling them “inappropriate and completely unacceptable.”

Then, as many of his Senate colleagues made the decision to withdraw their support for Trump altogether, Burr decided to hedge;

“I am going to watch his [Trump’s] level of contrition over the next few days to determine my level of support,” he said in a statement to CBS News.

The last thing Burr wants is to be is a lightening rod like Ryan or Sen. John McCain, who was attacked by Trump after withdrawing his endorsement. Instead, Burr is clearly trying to please all sides and keep his head down over the last few weeks of the election. 

The question is whether he is pleasing anyone with this strategy or just alienating everyone.

Asked directly in the only debate Burr and Ross will have before the election, the incumbent Burr said he would stand behind Trump until the end -- but was sure to add some caveats about that support.

“I’m the son of a Presbyterian minister,” Burr said. “My dad taught me when someone asks for forgiveness, you grant it. Now, I’m not going to defend Donald Trump, what he said or his actions. I’ve spoken out quickly and loudly when I disagreed with something. But when I look at our choice, it’s not close for me. I’m going to support my nominee. I’m going to support Donald Trump.”

Zack Pangle, a 20-year-old from Charlotte, is still undecided and wishes there was another feasible option besides Trump or Clinton. The release of the Trump audio “frankly scared the sh*t out of me,” he said. 

“By voting for Trump it all of sudden seems that I would be voting for someone that has done and said some of the exact things that I disagree with,” said Pangle. 

But when asked about Burr supporting Trump, Pangle said he views it as a matter of necessity for the senator, and that it and won’t impact his vote. “I believe [Burr] is staying true to the Republican party rather than the actual candidate…his continued endorsement of Trump doesn’t really affect my views of Burr or my likelihood in voting for him for the Senate,” Pangle said.

Still, navigating what to do with Trump is a tricky question for Burr. David Rohde, a professor of political science at Duke University, sees Burr’s continued support as a tough political calculation, and an issue that will stick around until Election Day. 

“No matter what Burr does, he has a problem. If he withdraws his support from Trump, he will alienate some portion of Trump’s supporters and they may abstain, thus losing support for Burr. If Burr sticks with Trump, he will alienate some of his own supporters who might then abstain or even vote for Ross,” Rohde explained.

“The key point is that there is no good option available, and that information about what is the better (or less worse) option is very imperfect.”