Republican congressional candidates have been slow to take a position on GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump's call for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."
Trump has put Republican Senate candidates into the position of either addressing his comments and alienating Republicans who agree with Trump, or staying silent and hurting themselves with voters in the general election.
Republican political strategists say candidates have an opportunity to put some distance between themselves and Trump's over-the-top comments.
"Trump has said a lot of outrageous things, but this takes things to a new level," Republican consultant Brian Walsh said Tuesday.
"I can understand the reluctance to respond to every outrageous thing he says, but I do think this is an opportunity to have some separation with him," Walsh said.
Senate campaigns face a balancing act, he said.
"On the one hand, you don’t want to alienate his supporters," Walsh said of Trump's socially conservative base.
Nor should candidates stray from their own message and "get pulled into a long-drawn debate over every thing he says," Walsh said.
"On the other hand," Walsh cautioned, "standing with him on something like this could alienate the middle of the road voter," especially, he said, in the all-important battleground states.
Florida Rep. David Jolly, who’s vying for the GOP nomination for Florida’s open Senate seat, offered the strongest rebuke so far.
The two-term representative, who represents a key state in the presidential contest, called on Trump to drop out of the race Monday night in the hours following Trump's comments. "While ISIS is beheading innocent people for their religious practices, Trump is betraying our freedoms," Jolly said in a statement.
"His brutal, bullying bigotry runs contrary to the very principles our forefathers fought so hard to defend. We are either a party of protecting the constitution and religious liberties or we're not. America should insist on a security test but never a religious test," Jolly said. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who's facing a competitive re-election, said in a statement Tuesday that he disagreed with Trump's proposal, although he did not mention Trump by name.
“It's not what America stands for, and it is counter to constitutional principles of religious liberty," Portman said. "Of course we should vet everyone who wants to come to our country to ensure they don't pose a security risk, but it should be done based on factors that relate to security.”
Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey tweeted Tuesday morning that Trump was "wrong."
Ron Bonjean, a GOP consultant and partner of Walsh's at Rokk Solutions, said Senate candidates are right to be proactive in their responses before waiting for the inevitable questions on the campaign trail.
"The better thing to do is to get in front of it and disavow those comments," Bonjean said. "The Republican candidates that really matter are in swing states or they’re vulnerable. They should do all they can to separate themselves from Donald Trump or else they’re going to have a tougher time in general election. And it’s not hard to do, the presidential candidates are doing it."
Ohio Republican consultant Bob Kish acknowledges that some Senate candidates, especially those in competitive states, may need to weigh in, but he cautioned congressional candidates against commenting.
"There's no upside to commenting," Kish said. "The presidential race is the show, you won't get any publicity out of it, and more than likely, it will upset the Republican base because a lot of Republican voters agree with Trump even if they don’t say it."
He advised House candidates to say, "'Donald Trump has his own opinions,' and then just say what you would do."
Long before Trump's most recent remarks, in a seven-page private National Republican Senatorial Committee memo from September, executive director Ward Baker told Senate candidates to adopt Trump's style if not his political brand, urging candidates to leave plenty of room between them and the frontrunner's controversial remarks.
According to the Washington Post, which obtained the document last week, the memo implied "the national party would back Trump if he secured the nomination — managing his candidacy rather than disowning him as the standard-bearer."
But some of the party's standard-bearers, including Speaker Paul D. Ryan, went out of their way to distance the party from Trump's comments Tuesday.
"Normally I do not comment on what’s going on in the presidential election," Ryan said . "I will take an exception today. This is not conservatism. What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for and more importantly it’s not what this country stands for."
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus would only say that he doesn't agree with Trump's comments, according to the Washington Examiner .
Nearly all of Trump' fellow GOP presidential candidates have responded to Trump's comments in varying degrees, with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham taking the toughest stance against the GOP front-runner.
"You know how you make America great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to Hell," he said on CNN Tuesday morning . "I'd rather lose without Donald Trump than try to win with with him," Graham said of the GOP front-runner.
But Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz were slower to respond.
Appearing at a Capitol Hill press conference with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday to push for a bill allowing governors to opt out of allowing refugees to be resettled in their states, Cruz said he disagreed with Trump's remarks but wasn't ready to condemn the candidate.
"I disagree with that proposal. I like Donald Trump. A lot of our friends here have encouraged me to criticize and attack Donald Trump. I'm not interested in doing so, but I believe we need a plan that is focused on the direct threat, and the threat we're facing is radical Islamic terrorism," Cruz said.
"It's why I've introduced legislation focused on suspending for three years, putting in place a moratorium on refugees from countries where ISIS or al-Qaida controls substantial territory," the Texas Senator continued.
Paul, who's running for president and for re-election to the Senate, said on New Hampshire Today radio Tuesday that basing immigration moratoriums on religion, as Trump suggested, was a "mistake." But he said he has previously advocated for what he called a "similar" measure, "which is a moratorium based on high risk."
Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday morning, Minority Leader Harry Reid pressured Republicans to prove that they don't stand with Trump.
Tying Trump's comments to the Republican party at large, he said, “Trump is just saying out loud what other Republicans suggest."