With voting underway on Super Tuesday and billionaire Donald Trump expected to win the most GOP delegates, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., acknowledged that vulnerable Senate Republicans may have to distance themselves from Trump if he is the nominee.
A recent New York Times report quoted McConnell saying in a closed-door meeting, "We'll drop him like a hot rock," in reference to the GOP front-runner.
“I don’t remember saying anything like that to all of you,” McConnell told reporters at his weekly news conference Tuesday, placing a notable emphasis on the word "you."
Senators were peppered with questions throughout the day about what would happen to tight races further down the ballot if Trump is the Republican name at the top of the ticket in November. Of the 34 senators up for reelection, 24 are Republicans, and seven of them are in states that President Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012.
Only a few senators said publicly what Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said on Monday : Vulnerable Republicans will have to avoid campaigning with the likely nominee.
"There’s a concern out there that they have a viable person in front of the ticket," said freshman Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D, who is not up for re-election this year. "They think that’s important to have someone that they can support.”
But when it comes to distancing themselves from Trump, "that’s up to each individual senator," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whose reelection race is rated Favored Republican by the Rothenberg/Gonzalez Political Report/Roll Call.
McCain's Democratic opponent, Rep. Anne Kirkpatrick, released a 60-second ad Monday attempting to tie McCain to real estate mogul, with the narrator noting, "No matter what Donald Trump says, John McCain would support him for president."
"Trump attacked McCain. I don’t think that Sen. McCain will find it difficult, if he wants to, to distance himself,” said McCain's Arizona counterpart, GOP Sen. Jeff Flake. Flake has been critical of Trump's statements, particular a call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S.
“It’s a concern to have Trump at the top of the ticket, no doubt, for anyone on the ballot," Flake said. "But Sen. McCain’s in a very good position.”
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, another Republican facing a competitive race, said Monday he would worry about the GOP nominee when one was named.
"I've said for a year now, I intend to support the Republican nominee," Portman said. "But I've also said, 'Unless something crazy happens.'"
The senator tasked with ensuring Republicans maintain control of the Senate declined to discuss how a Trump ticket could affect Senate GOP races. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., repeated his mantra that he is not commenting on the presidential race, but added, "I feel very good about our Senate candidates.”
But, as one Senate Democrat pointed out, Republicans can't avoid the elephant at the top of the ticket.
"On the campaign trail, the Republican front-runner seems poised to strengthen his grip on the nomination," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., "forcing congressional Republicans to decide between hanging onto him for dear life or running for the hills.”
Some senators suggested candidates could run a race independent from the party's nominee's campaign.
"In 2012 people had to run away from Obama. You saw people trying to distance themselves from an unpopular president," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a former presidential contender who has been one of Trump's most vocal critics in the Senate. "Well, if we have an unpopular nominee, they’ll have to go through that same calculation.”
GOP Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota also said that he has consistently encouraged Republicans to run their own races.
"There are going to be times where, yeah, you may not agree with something that the person leading your party says or the position that they have on a particular issue," Thune said. "So that’s always the case and I don’t think this year will be any different."
But Democrats countered that won't always be easy, given that many Republicans have pledged to support their party's nominee.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., said Tuesday he will support the GOP nominee, but both he and McConnell also came out forcefully on Tuesday condemning the Ku Klux Klan, after Trump initially declined to disavow an endorsement from former KKK leader David Duke in a television interview. Trump later disawoed the endorsement.
“Republicans say they’ll support a man who refuses to denounce the Ku Klux Klan," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., "so until they refuse to withdraw their support, talk is really cheap.”
Flake, who has criticized Trump's statements, even visiting a mosque after Trump's proposed Muslim ban, said some senators feel a responsibility to speak out when Trump makes "outlandish, crazy statements." But he also pointed to Congress' low public approval ratings when asked what Republicans could do to slow Trump's rise.
“From a group that has, what, 9 percent favorables right now?" Flake said. "For us to go tell people how to vote, probably won’t make that much difference, frankly."
As vulnerable senators weighed how to deal with a Trump nominee, the campaigns continued their Super Tuesday swings. On Tuesday afternoon, Trump held a rally in McConnell's hometown of Louisville, Ky.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.
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