MANCHESTER, N.H. — Donald Trump has broken many of the rules of presidential politics: He’s insulted war heroes and minority groups, eschewed New Hampshire’s tradition of retail politics, and phoned in interviews to networks while other candidates jockey for facetime.
But for all the precepts Trump has ignored during this campaign, his fellow Republicans are grappling with a traditional one: partisan loyalty. Few top Republicans — even those who denounce his comments and policies — appear ready to swear off supporting him in a general election.
While Trump continues to drive establishment Republicans to distraction, just a handful have declared they would not support him if he becomes the GOP nominee. Republicans may be uncomfortable or offended by Trump’s bombast, but they are clearly nervous about turning their backs on the elements of their party showing the most energy this campaign.
“They’re trying to thread a needle,” said Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party and a Trump critic. “It’s an acute political challenge for most of them. They don’t want to antagonize the 25 or 30 percent of Republican voters entertained by Trump. At the same time, they don’t want to alienate the 60 percent of voters who are appalled by Trump’s rhetoric and his stated positions.”
Cullen added, “They’d all like it to just go away. But it’s not going away.”
Even in the Northeast, the tightest concentration of prominent moderate Republicans, elected officials have chosen a strategy of criticizing Trump’s more outlandish statements but stopping shy of ruling out support.
“It seems to me like we haven’t had a caucus or a primary yet, and a long way to go, and I like what some of the candidates have to say and I don’t like what some of the candidates have to say, and we’ll see where it goes,” Governor Charlie Baker stated Monday during a Globe interview, as he declined to say whether he would support Trump as the nominee.
Baker denounced Trump’s proposal earlier this month to ban Muslims from coming into the country. But, as Trump has added to his stack of statements condemned by large swaths of the party, Baker’s messaging has remained consistent for months: The governor takes issue with certain statements but says he does not want to involve himself in the election.
That position situates Baker, in this electoral climate, to the right of conservative talk show host Glenn Beck, who has said he would not vote for Trump against former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who is widely anticipated by Republicans to win the Democratic nomination.
Later on Monday, Trump’s words again offended many, when he told a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., that Clinton’s use of the bathroom during a debate was “disgusting” and that she got “schlonged” by Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary.
Senator Kelly Ayotte, the New Hampshire Republican facing a challenge next year from Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan, has opted for a hands-off tack similar to Baker’s.
After Trump in August generated controversy by aiming insults at Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, Ayotte said, “His comments are inappropriate and I don’t think women in New Hampshire will appreciate them.” But earlier this month, Ayotte told New Hampshire Public Radio, “We’re going to let the people of New Hampshire sort this out. I’ll support the Republican nominee.”
Unlike Baker, Ayotte would share a ballot with Trump if he receives the Republican nod — dangerous ground in a purple state that has usually voted for Democrats statewide in recent presidential elections.
“[Baker] just has to worry about the overall damage to the Republican brand,” Cullen said. “Other people like Kelly Ayotte have to worry not just about the damage he is doing to the Republican brand, but what potential damage he is doing to her politically.”
‘They don’t want to alienate the 60 percent of voters who are appalled by Trump’s rhetoric.’
Mayor Ted Gatsas of Manchester, a Republican, earlier this year returned a Trump donation over the candidate’s assertion that Senator John McCain, a longtime prisoner of war in Vietnam, was not a war hero. On Thursday, Gastas said he would “support whoever the nominee is.”
Some in the party have voiced hopes that Trump could elevate GOP turnout. Early polling shows that Trump appeals to white voters with limited education, disillusioned by Washington. Such voters have been Republican loyalists, but they have become increasingly critical of the very same political establishment that Trump has so thoroughly rattled this year.
Another Northeast Republican from the party’s moderate wing, Senator Susan M. Collins of Maine, told The New York Times in an article published this month that “Trump may bring out people who don’t usually vote, which could be helpful to some of my colleagues.”
But, Collins acknowledged that she’s not up for reelection next year and, therefore, would not be a possible target of any backlash.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who was the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2012, told reporters earlier this month that he had condemned Trump’s proposal on Muslims “because I think that needed to be commented on.” But, Ryan added, he would “stay neutral” and “support the nominee.”
Ryan’s onetime running mate, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, has weighed in occasionally with criticism of Trump, whose endorsement he accepted at a press conference in 2012. Romney, too, has refrained from publicly foreswearing support for Trump in the general election.
Complicating the question of GOP loyalty this campaign season is the fact that Trump previously backed Democrats.
“It’s a very strange dance politically, with a guy who has no Republican bona fides to speak of and is running on a platform that is fundamentally alienating and causing a giant political train wreck and will elect Hillary Clinton,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican strategist.
Democrats, meanwhile, have been only too happy to try to lash Republicans to Trump. During last Saturday’s debate, Clinton sought to paint the entire Republican field with Trump’s controversial anti-Muslim statements.
On the trail, Republican candidates have tried an evolving set of strategies to face the Trump threat. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, at an addiction round-table here this month, told reporters they “should be ashamed” for asking him about Trump.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush had tried the same approach earlier in the campaign, although he has become more confrontational toward the front-runner, calling Trump “a jerk” and trading schoolyard insults with him.
At a town hall event in Berlin, N.H., on Tuesday, Bush finished an answer by saying, “I promise I won’t talk about Trump again,” according to an online video. But he returned to the topic less than two minutes later.
“I broke my rule already,” Bush said.Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.