The Republican Party could be nearing a breaking point with Donald Trump.
As he skips from one gaffe to the next, GOP leaders in Washington and in the most competitive states have begun openly contemplating turning their backs on their party’s presidential nominee to prevent what they fear will be wide-scale Republican losses on Election Day.
Back in 1996, the party largely gave up on nominee Bob Dole once it became clear he had little chance of winning, so it’s not without precedent. Nevertheless, it’s a jolting prospect now, with roughly three months still left before the Nov. 8 vote and weeks before the three presidential debates.
Republicans who have devoted their professional lives to electing GOP candidates say they believe the White House already may be lost. They’re exasperated by Trump’s divisive politics and his insistence on running a general election campaign that mirrors his approach to the primaries.
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“Based on his campaign record, there’s no chance he’s going to win,” said Sara Fagen, the political director for former President George W. Bush. “He’s losing groups of people he can’t get back.”
Trump’s campaign says things are moving in the right direction, a position that itself feeds the discontent among his GOP detractors. The billionaire businessman’s loyalists say enough time remains to change the dynamic against Democrat Hillary Clinton who, like Trump, is deeply unpopular with voters.
And his backers are blaming the media for the perception that all is not well.
“Frankly, a lot of stuff over the last week … it’s him being distorted,” said Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. “For the last week or so, he’s been very focused and very much on his game.”
Trump did show some modest improvement as a candidate in the past week. He has stopped criticizing a Muslim family of a fallen U.S. soldier. Gone are the fights with some of his party’s most respected members of Congress.
But also in the past seven days, Trump has questioned the advice of senior aides, threatened to stop raising money for the party, dismissed the usefulness of get-out-the-vote efforts and defended his decision not to run any television ads even as his opponents fill the airwaves with spots backing Clinton in several contested states.
It all largely overshadowed the content of 44 previously-unreleased email exchanges Clinton had while at the State Department. They became public on Tuesday and showed her interacting with lobbyists, political and Clinton Foundation donors and business interests while serving as secretary of state.
“He can’t simply continue to preach to the choir and think he’s going to put together a coalition that will win the White House,” said Ryan Williams, a party strategist and former aide to 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney. “He’s essentially guaranteeing that he will lose by refusing to clean up his mistakes and stop committing future ones.”
The mistakes do keep coming.
Trump this past week stuck by a patently false claim that President Barack Obama founded the Islamic State group. The candidate made an off-handed remark about Clinton that was widely condemned by critics as an invitation to violence. He even acknowledged that losing might not be so bad.
“I'll just keep doing the same thing I’m doing right now,” he told CNBC on Thursday. “And at the end it’s either going to work or I’m going to you know, I’m going to have a very, very nice, long vacation.”
All of it, to some Republicans, should lead the party to give up on its nominee.
More than 100 GOP officials, including at least six former members of Congress and more than 20 former staffers at the Republican National Committee, have signed a letter asking the party chairman, Reince Priebus, to stop helping Trump’s campaign.
They call the New York real estate mogul a threat to the party and to the nation. They want the RNC to take resources now helping Trump and shift them to vulnerable GOP candidates for House and Senate.
The letter follows a steady stream of recent defections from Republican elected officials and longtime strategists who vow never to support Trump. They want party leaders to acknowledge that backing his White House bid is a waste of time and money.
“They’re going to do it sooner or later. They might as well do it sooner to have more impact,” said former Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber, one of the Republicans to sign the letter to Priebus.
Senior Republicans in Washington and in some of the most contested states have discussed a scenario in which the party scales back its presidential focus in states that don’t feature top races for Senate. They could abandon a state such as Virginia, for example, and focus more on a state such as Indiana, where Democrat Evan Bayh is trying to make a Senate comeback.
That’s according to several Republican officials in Washington and states that would be affected, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. They spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity to outline private discussions.
There is no evidence that a formal plan to break with Trump exists at either the state party or RNC level, but Priebus has informally discussed the possibility with party leaders in battleground states in recent days, three of the officials said.
Should that occur, it’s not likely to happen until after Labor Day, as the party is still relying on Trump to help raise money to fund its expansive political operation. But the amount of money needed decreases as each day passes, giving the RNC greater financial freedom to potentially change course as the election nears.
For now, Priebus is vocally supportive of Trump. The party chairman joined the nominee on Friday, part of a larger effort to ensure an experienced political hand is almost always at the candidate’s side when he travels.
Others keeping Trump company this past week include former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
“We’ve always found it’s wise to have people traveling with him, because it’s an opportunity to have him engaged and not just sitting there,” Manafort said.
Some credit that strategy for Trump’s avoiding devastating unforced errors, such as his tussle with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Muslim-Americans parents whose son, U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed in Iraq in 2004. Manafort also has privately assured swing state Republicans that Trump no longer will attack party rivals – House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Ohio Gov. John Kasich among them.
But it’s hardly foolproof.
After several error-free days, Trump caused a major stir Tuesday when his comments about supporters of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms were viewed by some as advocating violence against Clinton.
He came in for criticism again after saying on Wednesday that Obama was the “founder” of IS, a false claim he repeated several times on Thursday – even when given the chance to tone down his attack on the president’s foreign policies.
On Friday, Trump started the day saying he was only being sarcastic, before telling a Pennsylvania rally, “but not that sarcastic, to be honest with you.”
It’s those kinds of moments that lead experienced Republicans to think Trump cannot be saved from himself.
“He’s almost like someone with an addiction who can’t stop,” Fagen said. “Until he gets help and admits it, he won’t be able to change.”
The dissension in the Republican ranks hasn’t affected Trump’s ability to draw supporters to his rallies. Lisa Thompson, a firefighter from St. Cloud, Florida, is among the many who continue to stand in long lines for hours to see Trump at his events.
She said those balking at his missteps were being “too sensitive” – a luxury the nation can’t afford with growing security threats. She urged Trump to stick with his playbook.
“Why be fake?” she asked.
Others aren’t so sure.
Mike Dedrel, a UPS driver and Trump supporter who’s also from St. Cloud, said he hoped in the coming months that Trump wouldn’t speak off the cuff as often and stick to pre-planned answers. If he doesn’t, Dedrel said, he’s concerned that Trump is on the way to an Election Day defeat.
“I was worried about that from Day One, when he was going against 16 other guys,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I know he'll be a great president – if he can win.”