WASHINGTON — Amid fears Donald Trump’s spiraling campaign could endanger the Republican majority in Congress, House Speaker Paul Ryan touted the need for a GOP bulwark against a Hillary Clinton presidency.
“If we do not act, we will not just lose our standard of living, we will lose the spirit that makes America great in the first place, and if Hillary Clinton wins, and she is given control of Washington, if she is given control of Congress, it will not be long before we come to that precipice, but that does not have to happen,” Ryan, R-Wis., said in a speech to college Republicans in Madison on Friday.
Ryan never mentioned Donald Trump, but it was Ryan's first public event after a bombshell 2005 video emerged in which Trump made lewd comments about groping women without consent. This week, Ryan was among dozens of Republicans who publicly split from Trump, and he subsequently told GOP lawmakers and donors to focus on saving congressional seats over defending Trump.
In Ryan’s remarks Friday, he warned that Democrats want to increase bureaucratic control of peoples' lives and confirm liberal judges.
"A Republican Congress will not stand for this,” he said.
Whatever the outcome of the election, there is a brewing war within the Republican Party that has repercussions for Ryan. For his part, Trump earlier in the week tweeted scorn for Ryan, calling him “weak and ineffective,” and blasting Republican defectors as “disloyal” and “self-righteous hypocrites.”
Among Senate lawmakers who announced they were abandoning Trump over the video were Senate Armed Services Chair John McCain, R-Ariz., and SASC member Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. Both have competitive races for reelection, and while McCain is leading his rival by double digits, Ayotte is tied with hers in a recent poll.
Trump also attacked McCain in a tweet, saying, “The very foul-mouthed Sen. John McCain begged for my support during his primary (I gave, he won), then dropped me over locker room remarks!”
But McCain's move made him less vulnerable a day later, during his lone debate with rival Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., said Arizona-based pollster Michael O'Neil.
“I think it was a very, very cagey move to get that behind him,” O’Neil said of McCain. “He’ll have a few Trump loyalists irritated by that, but where are they going to go? They’re not going to vote for a Democrat, especially one who has been painted as a liberal clone of President Barack Obama.”
What the scandal and intra-party fighting will mean for Republicans’ hold on Congress is unclear, pollsters say. Trump’s threats to turn his supporters against GOP candidates who broke with him is an election “wild card,” said Geoffrey Skelley, with the Center for Politics, at the University of Virginia.
“It’s certainly not good for the Republican Party, but how much it hurts in terms of actual races, that’s what they have elections for, and we’ll find out,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac Poll.
To capture the majority in the House, Democrats must net 30 seats — a heavy lift, but not unthinkable. In the Senate, Democrats would need five seats to regain the majority in the Senate.
Both depend on Clinton’s coattails, should she win. Clinton leads Trump by 6.7 percent, according to a Real Clear Politics average.
Skelley said he could see Democrats taking three of the six toss-up Senate seats. Of those, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania lean toward Clinton, North Carolina and Nevada are true toss-ups, and Indiana and Missouri leans toward Trump.
For Democrats to get the 30 seats needed to take the House would require very low GOP turnout. “I could see Democrats getting close, but getting over the top would be tough,” Skelley said.
Even if Republicans retain their majority, it could leave Ryan with fewer moderate Republicans and hence, a weaker hand against the no-compromise, fiscally-conservative House Freedom Caucus. It sets up a dynamic unfavorable to bipartisan compromise.
“On budgetary matters, debt ceiling matters, all kinds of things—already a member of his caucus said he wouldn’t support him for speaker,” Skelley said.
That would be Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., a member of the House Freedom Caucus, who posted to Twitter Wednesday morning, “Given the stakes of this election, if Paul Ryan isn't for Trump, then I'm not for Paul Ryan.”
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, warned of a looming insurrection within the party, telling conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham on Tuesday, “the establishment wing of the party could simply be amputated out in this, they’ve gone so far out on this limb—and maybe we can rebuild.”
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., told Fox’s Lou Dobbs on Thursday that Ryan, “made a political mistake,” by distancing himself from Trump.
“Everybody said they were going to support the nominee,” said Meadows, a member of the Freedom Caucus. “We need to get behind the nominee and make sure, with a unified voice, that we do that and we put someone who will not use that pen and the executive order in the White House to accomplish an agenda that is not representative of the will of the people.”