Politics

GOP Senators Who Burn Trump Get Singed

Ayotte, Toomey invite continual criticism by holding back their support for the GOP nominee

Two Republican senators facing brutal re-election battles in critical presidential battleground states have damaged themselves and Donald Trump by failing to flatly endorse the Republican presidential nominee.

Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, respectively deadlocked with New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan and former Bill Clinton adviser Katie McGinty, have each refused to endorse Donald Trump. But their equivocation probably hurts them more than it helps. They’ve cast themselves to voters as opportunists trying to please everyone while allowing their opponents to continually badger them about Trump.

By straddling the fence, she has the worst of both worlds. She is telling voters she can’t quite bring herself to take a stand and … she keeps herself still open to criticism.

Meantime, Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, once thought vulnerable, took a stand by endorsing Trump and is up in the latest RealClearPolitics average of polls by 13 points over former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Trump is struggling in both Pennsylvania and New Hampshire but has opened up a surprisingly solid 4-point lead in Ohio, according to the RCP average. Some attribute Trump’s strength in Ohio in part to Portman. “In Ohio, everyone is riding Rob Portman’s coattails,” Donald Larson, an Ohio Republican who is challenging Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur, told The Wall Street Journal.

Endorsing Trump had to be even more difficult for Portman than it is for either Ayotte or Toomey. Portman is the quintessence of what Trump is running against, a Washington insider who not only supports free trade deals but who was at one point the U.S. trade representative. But while he hasn’t been campaigning with Trump, Portman took the stand against Hillary Clinton — and for the GOP nominee.

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With Portman, Ohioans understand they have a principled senator representing them in Washington. Not so with Toomey and Ayotte.

Ayotte is playing a particularly cynical game, saying she will vote for Trump but refusing to “endorse” him. In a year when voters are fed up with politics as usual, that has to be a distressing example to them of political gamesmanship. Such double-dealing came back to haunt her during a debate with Hassan Monday in which she said would “absolutely” consider Trump a role model.

Then, after some criticism, she walked it right back, inflaming the damage done.

“I misspoke tonight. While I would hope all of our children would aspire to be president, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have set a good example and I wouldn’t hold either of them as role models for my kids,” she said.

Ayotte has tried to appease New Hampshire voters by suggesting that having her cake and eating it too shows she will “stand up” to Trump. But voters are smarter than politicians like Ayotte think they are, and they can smell opportunism when a candidate reeks of it.

By straddling the fence, she has the worst of both worlds. She is telling voters that she can’t quite bring herself to take a stand and “endorse” Trump —but since she will vote for him, she keeps herself still open to criticism from Hassan that she is a Trump backer.

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Toomey has his finger completely to the wind, saying he continues to agonize over whether he can even vote for Trump. And the issue continues to dog him.

“I’m still wrestling with what to do there,” he told reporters in September. “There’s no question I would never support Hillary Clinton under any circumstances. But, like a lot of Pennsylvanians, I’m really not happy about the choices that we have.”

No doubt, were Trump up by 10 points in his state, the agonizing would be over. Instead, he has given McGinty an issue that she has quite adroitly exploited.

“Either the senator is not telling his constituents the truth and he knows full well what he thinks of Donald Trump, which is obviously disqualifying, or the senator is telling us the truth but indecision in this instance really means he is not up for the rigors of the job he is seeking,” McGinty said Monday.

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“Sen. Toomey has been ducking and dodging on this simple question. I believe that the senator’s continued refusal to answer that simple question is disqualifying.”

Unfortunately, she has a point.

Toomey also piled on Trump by seconding Ayotte’s reversal of position, saying he too does not consider the man Republicans have selected as their nominee to be a role model.

Once, as a White House reporter, I was in a “background” briefing with Portman, who at the time was George W. Bush’s Office of Management and Budget director. The rules were that he was to be quoted only as a “senior administration official.” One of my editors accidentally outed Portman by including his name in the headline.

Nothing can be more disastrous for a reporter than to reveal a source. It wasn’t my fault, and Portman knew it. The morning the story ran, I got a call from the OMB director himself telling me not to give it a second thought.

I immediately knew I was dealing with a man of character. The voters of Ohio have apparently made the same observation.

Keith Koffler is the editor of the website White House Dossier and the newsletter Cut to the News.

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