High-profile Republicans and rank-and-file voters on Wednesday struggled with how to best reject Donald Trump’s divisive candidacy, as the nominee dealt with fallout from his remark that gun rights activists could stop Hillary Clinton from nominating liberal U.S. Supreme Court justices.
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post saying the party was in “uncharted waters” and called for leaders to start looking for ways to remove Trump from the ticket.
A new Reuters/Ipsos poll taken Aug. 5-8 showed that nearly one-fifth of 396 registered Republicans want Trump to drop out of the race for the White House and another 10 percent “don’t know” whether the Republican nominee should or not.
Clinton’s campaign moved to bring disenchanted Republicans into the fold by announcing an official intraparty outreach effort on behalf of the Democratic nominee.
But strategists cautioned that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to remove Trump from the Republican ticket.
“It’s wishful thinking to believe the Republicans are going to replace its nominee after the convention. People are grasping at straws,” Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist unaffiliated with Trump, told Reuters.
The best moves for Trump’s detractors may be withholding their endorsements, refusing to raise money for his campaign, throwing their weight behind Clinton or holding out hope that he voluntarily quits.
Clinton’s campaign now has a website for Republicans and political independents to sign up to pledge their support. It lists 50 prominent Republicans and independents who have endorsed her so far, including Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE.N) Chief Executive Officer Meg Whitman and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
John Negroponte, former director of national intelligence under President George W. Bush, and former Republican U.S. Representative Chris Shays of Connecticut were among those that announced their support on Wednesday.
“Donald Trump lost me a long time ago,” Shays told MSNBC in an interview. “He does and says everything my mom and dad taught me never to say and do. He doesn’t understand the basic requirements of being president of the United States. And, frankly, he’s dangerous.”
Earlier this week, 50 Republican national security officials had signed an open letter questioning the real estate mogul’s temperament, calling him reckless and unqualified.
Other top Republicans, including Senator Susan Collins of Maine this week, have disavowed Trump but said they cannot back Clinton, either.
Trump has dismissed the defections and criticism as an unsurprising reaction of the so-called Washington elite to his drive to change the status quo.
“He has dug himself a deep hole overall because he’s allowed the race to become a referendum on his fitness to be president,” said Republican strategist and Trump supporter Ford O’Connell. “If he’s going to win this, he has to make it a referendum on Hillary Clinton and the ‘rigged system.’”
Trump, a New York businessman, was seeking to reset his campaign this week with an economic policy speech after a series of missteps that included a prolonged clash with the parents of fallen Muslim American Army Captain Humayun Khan.
But Trump’s remark at a Tuesday rally about gun rights activists sparked a torrent of criticism on social media that he was effectively calling for Clinton’s assassination.
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks,” Trump said at the rally at the University of North Carolina. “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know,” he continued. The U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment guarantees a right to keep and bear arms.
Clinton’s campaign called Trump’s remark “dangerous.” Trump’s campaign said the comment was misinterpreted and that he was encouraging gun activists to use their political power.
“What he meant by that was you have the power to vote against her,” former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said late on Tuesday when introducing Trump at another rally.
Trump’s comment and the resulting backlash occurred as Reuters/Ipsos polling showed some 44 percent of 1,162 registered voters believe he should exit the race and that as of Tuesday, Clinton led Trump by more than 7 percentage points, up from a 3-percentage-point lead late last week.
Republican Party rules and state laws would make it difficult at this juncture to replace Trump on ballots ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
The party would have to host another nominating convention or have delegates vote following the same process used at a formal convention. In addition, some states require that nominee names on ballots be certified earlier than others. The deadline in Ohio is Aug. 10; Florida is Sept. 1. Both are critical battleground states.
A more likely scenario would be a replay of the 1996 presidential race, when Republican nominee Bob Dole was badly trailing President Bill Clinton. The party essentially deserted Dole by urging its congressional candidates to cut ties and concentrate on maintaining a Republican majority in the U.S. Congress.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavy, Doina Chiacu, Grant Smith and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis)