WASHINGTON — The Republican party inched toward civil war less than a month before election day, as spiralling poll numbers and controversies lit the fuse Monday for a potentially explosive conflict between its presidential nominee and senior leadership.
Party brass made it clear they have stopped defending Donald Trump. They warned elected members to focus on saving Congress, as a string of surveys show such drastically plummeting support for their nominee that it threatens to take down the entire ship.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks in Wilkes-Barre Twp., Pa. on Oct. 10, 2016. (Photo: Christopher Dolan/AP via CP)
Trump responded in characteristic fashion: He fired back.
On his side in the skirmish is a core of the grassroots that detests its party leadership. Some are talking sabotage of the party, if a Trump spokeswoman is to be believed. Katrina Pierson said she has been deluged with calls and texts from supporters saying they'll vote for Trump, but not for other Republicans in crucial down-ballot races.
Trump, meanwhile, blasted the top Republican in Congress. This was after House Speaker Paul Ryan told members in a conference call that he would no longer be appearing with Trump; he's now focused on saving the legislature to act as a check on a potential President Hillary Clinton.
Our very weak and ineffective leader, Paul Ryan, had a bad conference call where his members went wild at his disloyalty.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2016
"Paul Ryan should spend more time on balancing the budget, jobs and illegal immigration," Trump responded via social media. "And not waste his time on fighting (the) Republican nominee."
This internal brushfire was lit with two matches.
—The first is a clear decline in the polls. The latest head-head surveys had Clinton winning by seven percentage points, five points and a whopping 14 points. Of a dozen major pollsters, only one has shown Trump leading in the last month.
Clinton running away with it, polls suggest
Clinton leads in almost every battleground state. A survey Monday even showed Democrats leading a generic national poll on who should control Congress. In the presidential polls, they were one percentage point behind Republicans in deep-red South Carolina.
—The second is Trump's comportment. There was the release of an old video where he talked about grabbing women's genitals without permission. But his response has included an all-out assault against his political rivals that many Republicans view as crude and counter-productive.
One former party chairman tweeted a picture of a nuclear mushroom cloud with the caption: "(Republican party) at this moment.''
Trump targets Clinton's husband
This was after Trump spent part of Sunday's debate invoking old accusations of sexual assault or misconduct against Bill Clinton. He invited the accusers to sit in the audience. Reportedly, the original plan called for them to confront Bill Clinton at the debate — which was prevented by organizers.
Trump followed up on the theme in a Pennsylvania rally speech Monday.
He railed at the news media for not challenging Bill Clinton, or his wife Hillary for condoning his behaviour. The rally crowd roared its approval, but it went silent as Trump continued. He accused the media of always protecting its liberal heroes — and went on a riff about the 1969 death of Mary Jo Kopechne. She died in a car crash while riding with Kennedy, who delayed reporting it to police.
Meanwhile, Trump defenders are tossing bomblets at the party. One of them, Christian conservative Jerry Falwell Jr., accused the Republican party of leaking the lewd tape in an effort to hurt Trump, who has repeatedly suggested the election is rigged against him.
Ryan focusing on House
Senior party members have apparently had enough.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell distanced himself from the nominee Monday. At an event in his home state of Kentucky, he told a group of business leaders that if they expected to hear him discuss the presidential race, they "might as well go ahead and leave.''
Ryan told members to start worrying about Congress. Polls suggest Democrats have a decent shot at regaining the Senate — and the House, while still probably out of reach, is increasingly competitive too.
The Associated Press said once person on Monday's conference call described Ryan promising to, "spend his entire energy making sure that Hillary Clinton does not get a blank check with a Democrat-controlled Congress.''
Pence leaving ticket?
Several people on the call said Ryan told members, "You all need to do what's best for you in your district.''
One frustrated member reportedly referred to the party leadership as cowards.
Meanwhile, Trump's running mate denied reports he considered quitting over the crass remarks in the video. At a rally, Mike Pence said Monday: "I don't condone what was said, and I spoke out against it but, the other part of my faith is, I believe in grace. ...
"I believe in forgiveness. And we're called to forgive as we have been forgiven. And last night my running mate, he showed the American people what's in his heart. He showed humility to the American people and then he fought back and turned the focus to the choice that we face and I'm proud to stand with Donald Trump."
This was 29 days before the election.