The Senate Republican mantra to date on the possibility of Donald Trump winning the presidential nomination has been simple. “I will support whomever is the nominee.”
The real estate mogul appears on the verge of cruising to victory on Super Tuesday, and perhaps all but locking up the Republican presidential nomination. With that, GOP senators are starting to openly grapple with the fact that they may be soon presented with an unpalatable choice — back an unpredictable and controversial party leader who often flies in the face of political civility or break with the nominee.
For now, the dilemma is resulting in some wonderfully awkward tightrope walking.
Asked Monday evening about the impact of a Trump nomination, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) was careful to frame his answer in terms of data analysis, rather than his personal preference.
“All the polling has shown — it’s not me saying it, I’m just reading the polls — that he is the least likely to be able to defeat Hillary Clinton. Now that’s what polls show. The most likely is [Sen.] Marco Rubio [R-Fla.],” he said.
Inhofe said if it came down to Trump or Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, he would ultimately choose the New York businessman. But he added that the polls also show that Trump would hurt Republicans in down-ticket races.
He concluded, “I think the ones you ought to be asking are the endangered species for 2016, don’t you?”
One of those endangered members up for reelection this year is Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.).
“I’ve always said I was going to support the nominee,” Burr said when asked about the prospect of backing Trump. He quickly followed up with an important caveat: “I’m hopeful I’ll be able to support the nominee.”
He repeated the same phrase moments later.
Asked what might make him unable to back the GOP nominee, Burr demurred. “I’m not going to take any questions on this,” he said, after having just taken questions on the topic.
It was an awkward night for many GOP senators, a day ahead of Super Tuesday. The usually talkative Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was the subject of a new Democratic ad Monday that sought to tie him closely to Trump, exasperatedly repeated to reporters that he intends to support whomever wins the party’s nod.
“I said, ‘I. Support. The. Nominee,’” he said after being asked whether he would support Trump for the fourth or fifth time. But he also said that he didn’t think Arizona voters would buy the Democratic attack, hinting that a close association with the New York businessman probably isn’t in the cards.
“I thought it was Donald Trump who attacked me. Maybe I missed that,” he said, referring to one of Trump’s first contentious comments in which he called McCain a “loser” for being captured and held prisoner during the Vietnam War. “The people of Arizona know me very well.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said he made up his mind early on not to endorse anyone for president because he thought voters in Tennessee should make up their minds without his influence.
Asked what he would do if Trump won, Corker dryly deflected. “I’m going to go upstairs and vote and try to make it through this gaggle without committing to anything in any direction.”
“It’s great to see everyone here,” Corker said of the horde of reporters around him. “I thought of maybe going the back way to avoid all of y’all tonight, but I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), when asked whether he had concerns about Trump’s back-and-forth answers on disavowing Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, said he didn’t know “exactly what Mr. Trump said.” He added that a New York Times report, which quoted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) saying Republican incumbents would drop nominee Trump “like a hot rock” if he became a liability, was news to him.
“I never heard that,” he laughed before hopping on an elevator. “That’s a new one on me.”
The list goes on. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said she would support the Republican nominee but would not answer any other questions about the presidential race.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) said he currently is supporting Rubio for the nomination and would not “make any hypothetical decisions” beyond that.
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said that the press corps was “giving up” on the other GOP presidential candidates too soon.
At least one GOP senator was having fun. One-time presidential contender Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who gave an impassioned plea last week for his party to rebel against Trump, was all jokes as he walked through the Senate halls after Monday night votes.
“I lost,” he said with a chuckle, then proudly touted his early and vocal opposition to Trump. “When they write the history of these times, I will not have been late in criticizing.”
Graham said real estate tycoon was probably the only GOP candidate who could lose to Clinton in a general election. “This is a match between sort of dishonest or crazy,” he said.
So what do Republicans do if it becomes clear Trump will be the Republican Party’s next presidential nominee?
“You buy a ticket on the Titanic,” Graham said.