WASHINGTON — A political cacophony swept the nation over the weekend as a succession of senators, governors and members of the U.S. House called on Donald Trump to withdraw from the presidential race in the wake of his vulgar comments about women and sexual assault captured on videotape a decade ago.
But in Texas, beyond a handful of officeholders, leading Republicans were reluctant to weigh in, if not altogether silent on Trump's fitness for office.
Leading GOP elected officials — including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn — condemned the words but continued to back their candidate, and pro-Trump grassroots forces appeared set in their support for the party nominee. But mostly younger GOP operatives are growing increasingly furious with party leaders who stay loyal.
“The Republican Party in Texas has jumped the shark,” said Jenifer Sarver, a former George W. Bush administration official. “Strong condemnations of Donald Trump, while still supporting his candidacy, ring hollow, cynical and hypocritical.”
In dozens of interviews with Texas Republican operatives over the weekend and into Monday, many who work in Texas politics said the state's elected GOP officials are so scared of alienating Trump's base that nothing he could say or do would dislodge their political support.
They calculate that any Trump heterodoxy now could translate into electoral suicide in the 2018 GOP primary, where Cruz, Abbott and Patrick will all be up for re-election, along with the entire U.S. House delegation.
But the long-term consequences of enabling Trump, some younger Republicans fear, could prove dangerous to the health of the party.
One Capitol Hill staffer said that the turmoil of Cruz's vacillations with Trump, and the booing that greeted U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan in his own Wisconsin district Saturday after he disinvited Trump from the event, are instructive to the rank-and-file.
“There’s so much anger toward Hillary [Clinton] in Texas, that no one wants to get out too far over the constituents on this one,” said the staffer, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
While some congressional staffers are appealing to their bosses' consciences to speak out against Trump, his most supportive officeholders argue the inverse: History will judge harshly Republicans who hand the White House to Democrat Clinton and allow her to install a generational majority on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Many Republicans still supporting Trump claim the makeup of the Supreme Court as the highest prize and the reason for their support, however tepid it might be,” said Sarver, pointing to fear of future court decisions on abortion as the glue binding unwilling Republicans to Trump.
And to the Trump loyalists, anything Trump said or did pales in comparison to the accusations against and choices made by Clinton over her lifetime.
U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, called on his colleagues to stick with Trump on a House GOP conference call Monday morning, according to a House Republican aide.
Only two Texas GOP lawmakers have added their voices to the calls for Trump to step aside, and they occupy unique positions in a political universe where most Texas GOP officeholders are men who need only win the GOP primary to hold office.
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of San Antonio is in a dogfight for re-election against former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, a Democrat. It is the only competitive federal race in Texas, and state and national Democrats have been churning out news releases against Hurd almost hourly since the Trump story broke.
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth, meanwhile, is the only GOP Texas woman serving in federal office.
Neither endorsed Trump, and therefore had no endorsement to revoke.
Otherwise, 22 statewide and congressional officeholders were radio silent through Monday, and not one Texas federal or state officeholder who previously endorsed Trump changed that stance.
“There’s no good answer — I’d stay quiet,” said Vinny Minchillo, a Texas Republican ad maker. “There’s no upside to making any kind of comment or quote. I’d just keep my powder dry.”
Trump's Sunday night debate performance only hardened support for him. In a catharsis for the base, he confronted Clinton with accusations that have floated for decades in conservative media.
At the same time, he brought to the debate three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct and another woman, the victim of a child rapist whom Hillary Clinton represented as a public defender in the 1970s.
That decision only further rattled many Republicans nationwide.
Democrats are openly promising to use support for Trump against Republicans for years to come — when congressional lines shift amid redistricting next decade, and demographics could make conservative states more competitive.
"These Republicans are cut from the same cloth as Trump and you can bet they'll be held answerable to it in future elections," said former state Sen. Wendy Davis. "This will haunt Republicans in this election and the elections to come."
A number of consultants interviewed worry that those sticking with Trump are not factoring in how the changing demographic winds are blowing.
"Some Republicans would rather let the party lose and expire in 30 years rather than let the next generation of Republicans start to build the party of the future,” said GOP consultant Brendan Steinhauser.
There’s been at least one professional divorce over Trump. One Capitol Hill staffer for a Texas officeholder told the Tribune he quit his job prior to this latest controversy in part because of his boss’s support for Trump.
“[The] GOP has soul searching to do and needs to stop trying to appease or appeal to the worst in people by bowing to their fear or prejudices, but instead win elections by winning arguments, winning on ideas, proving that there is a way to be conservative and to govern and to treat others with respect,” wrote the former staffer.
He declined to speak on the record because his current employer did not authorize him to speak to the press.
Political watchers are bracing for a smaller-than-normal Texas margin in the presidential contest, but otherwise, few expect any tangible repercussions to Trump and the video on Nov. 8.
Some consultants say the dearth of general election competition in Texas translates to a lack of recognition of what is happening elsewhere in the country. Early polling shows that Trump is collapsing in battleground states and that, for now, the presidential race is moving swiftly in Clinton’s favor and could be moving into landslide territory.
If that’s the case, the GOP fight will shift to Congress after the election.
“That civil war is real in the Republican Party and ... it’s going to have to be fought at some level,” said Minchillo, the ad-maker.
“It’s not over,” he added. “This whole thing fires back up after Nov. 8. Democrats love it, but it’s going to be tough to navigate, especially here in Texas.”
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.
Read more Tribune coverage here:
- The surfacing of a 2005 clip showing Donald Trump speaking lewdly about women has caused many Republicans to drop their support for their party's presidential nominee. Here's how the controversy is unfolding in Texas.
- Some Texas donors are withdrawing from attending two upcoming fundraisers in the state for Donald Trump.