Senate Republicans can run from Donald Trump. But debate season is making it really tough for them to hide.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) proved the rule when, earlier this month, she said in her debate that “absolutely” Trump is a role model. She scrambled to walk that back with a TV ad. (Just in time, too. The very next day, Trump’s Tape ™ came out, and the day after that, Ayotte announced that she couldn’t vote for Trump anymore.)
Four other vulnerable Senate Republican candidates have also said they won’t vote for Trump. But tweeting about it and talking about it on the debate stage are two very different things.
Here’s a look at how Trump has tripped up some Senate Republicans in their debates — and, on the flip side, how some candidates tried to score points talking about Trump.
1. Sen. John McCain: I know you are, but what am I
In their Oct. 10 debate, McCain (Ariz.) didn’t really have an answer for why, as his opponent, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D) pointed out, he said he’d endorse Trump more than 60 times — then pulled the plug this month after the hot-mic tape was reported.
McCain pivoted to his opponent’s support for Hillary Clinton instead — a “I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I” attack that Senate Republicans are increasingly relying on to get through these final few weeks of Trump.
“I wonder, since I renounced my support, if Congresswoman Kirkpatrick is going to renounce her support for Hillary Clinton,” McCain continued. (Kirkpatrick, who’s hoping to get a boost from Clinton’s investment in the state, said she supports Clinton.)
So if McCain isn’t going to vote for Trump, who is he going to vote for, the moderator asked. McCain: “I think I might write in Lindsey Graham, he’s an old, good friend of mine and a lot of people like him.”
McCain also struggled to talk about whether he trusts Trump with nuclear weapons when Kirkpatrick directly asked him if he did.
His response: “Isn’t that kind of a nonsense question? I’ve said I don’t support him. I do not see a scenario where the finger would be on the button. Do you?” He asked Kirkpatrick if she trusted Clinton with the nuclear codes; she said she did. When Kirkpatrick prodded him again on it, McCain responded: “No,” then pivoted to — you guessed it — attacking Clinton.
2. Sen. Pat Toomey: I haven’t decided who I’ll vote for
In Monday’s Pennsylvania Senate debate, Toomey (Pa.) was asked by the moderator three times to give a “yes or no” answer on whether he’d support Trump for president.
Three times, Toomey dodged.
“I have not reached a point where I can endorse Donald Trump, because I have so many concerns about his candidacy,” he finally said, later adding: “At some point” he “probably will” say who he’s going to vote for for president, “but there is more ethics we need to talk about.”
3. Sen. Ron Johnson: Trump who?
In his debate Friday, one of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents, Ron Johnson (Wis.), wouldn’t say Trump’s name in his debate with former senator Russ Feingold (D). Seriously. Johnson’s response to whether he’d continue to support Trump despite the The Tape ™ is 72 words long, with not one mention of the GOP nominee’s name:
“I’ve supported areas of agreement but I’ve not been shy about disagreeing with our candidate and I’m not going to defend the indefensible. Which is truthfully is kind of a marked difference between myself and Senator Feingold, who must be about the last American that believes that Hillary Clinton is trustworthy. He has completely supported her even though she has a decade’s worth record of corruption, lying boldface to the American public.”
4. Rep. Joe Heck and Sen. Marco Rubio: Going on the offensive
Not every candidate was thrown back on his heels when it comes to Trump. In Nevada, a battleground state that Trump is within striking distance of winning, Rep. Joe Heck (R) has taken heat from Nevada Republicans for rescinding his endorsement. He even got booed when he announced it.
But Heck was ready for a comeback in his debate Friday with Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, who tried to frame Heck’s breakup with Trump as a desperate political act.
Heck’s response immediately took the firepower out of that argument. He said his decision was “extremely personal” because his wife experienced domestic abuse in a past relationship, and he has personally treated domestic abuse victims.
“As an emergency room doctor, I’ve taken care of far too many women that have been victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, and I have great empathy for anyone who has ever had to experience such a tragedy,” he said.