Just hours after Donald Trump’s campaign announced Breitbart News Executive Chairman Steve Bannon would be its CEO, Republicans began bracing for the bottom to fall out of a presidential campaign many already acknowledged was spiraling out of control.
“I feel like Trump has declared war on the Republican Party,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican strategist who has had a long list of concerns about Trump for awhile. “He is determined to punch through the floor and see how low he can go.”
In the three states considered the key to Trump’s electoral math–Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio–Trump is trailing. He is so far behind at this point – in building infrastructure and in the polls –that electoral experts are warning that even if pulled out victories in those three states he could still potentially lose the White House as he loses ground in states Mitt Romney won in 2012.
Since formally winning the Republican nomination on July 19, Trump has backed away from decades’ old commitments to U.S. NATO alliances, coldly attacked a Gold Star family, called on Russian hackers to find Hillary Clinton’s emails, asked his Second Amendment supporters “to do something” to prevent Clinton from selecting Supreme Court justices if she were elected and repeatedly said Obama founded ISIS. With just 82 days until Election Day, the “pivot” that Republican strategists and reluctant congressional supporters were holding out hope for is a quaint relic from the days when Trump was just beginning to familiarize himself with a TelePrompter.
“I am who I am,” Trump told WKBT-TV in Wisconsin during a one-on-one interview. “It’s me. I don’t want to change. Everyone talks about ‘oh are you gonna pivot?’ I don’t want to pivot. I mean you have to be you. If you start pivoting, you are not being honest with people.”
All of it has pushed Republicans into a position where they are left flabbergasted, exhausted and with few options to extinguish a dumpster fire that is consuming the party’s best chances of taking back the White House in years.
“We now have a CEO, a campaign chairman and a campaign manager. That tells me that no one is in charge of this campaign,” said former Rep. Vin Weber (R-MN). “Trump is playing these three people against each other.”
This is the second time in two months Trump’s campaign has undergone a major shake-up. But, whereas the rise of Paul Manafort and firing of Corey Lewandowski in June was largely interpreted as a sign Trump was preparing to moderate and take on the trappings of a fully operational national general election campaign, the overhaul Wednesday signaled a turn toward conspiratorial posturing. While Trump’s promotion of Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway to campaign manager was widely regarded as a positive move that just came too late, Bannon’s involvement in the campaign, was a different story.
“I expect Trump to double down now on being an outsider,” said Republican strategist John Feehery. “This is a real signal that he thinks being part of the establishment is not good for him. He’s told the establishment to go stick it.”
Bannon has encouraged Trump’s raw, populist screeds when Republican leaders have pleaded with their nominee to stick to the script and be more measured. Bannon’s news site Breitbart has been known to fuel Islamophobia, and blast GOP leaders like House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) whose relationship with Trump can be described as a tenuous marriage of convenience at best.
“Bannon has no business being near a campaign. He is a conspiratorial, irresponsible actor in our political debate,” Mackowiak said.
In some states, Trump is running such deficits with women and college-aged whites that he could cost the Republicans the Senate.
A week after 70 Republicans sent an open letter calling for the Republican National Committee to drop Trump, even more pressure is mounting for the RNC to redirect its focus from the presidential race to down-ballot House and Senate races, but even that calculation is complicated. If Republicans ditch Trump now – with more than two months left in the cycle– they risk losing out on money that the top of ticket draws. If they don’t quit Trump, they could be forced to invest in what many recognize is a losing proposition.
“I have talked to people on the committee about it. Trump is raising money for the committee. There is no question about it. But, if we really believe that Trump is doomed as a candidate then the fact he is raising a lot of money to spend on his own lost cause at some point becomes irrelevant,” Weber said. “The sooner we make the break and start to finding those people who want to support the RNC and down-ballot races, the better.”
Weber added: “Look, we are in a terrible position. The Republican Party has made a mistake of historic proportion and when you do that, you find yourself in a place with no good solutions.”