Republicans in Congress are increasingly looking to distance themselves from Donald Trump, calling on their party to showcase a more inclusive tone and agenda than what the GOP front-runner is presenting on the campaign trail.
At the GOP’s congressional retreat here, some Republicans publicly and privately began warning that they would not unite behind Trump, highlighting the growing rift that threatens to torpedo their chances of retaking the White House and keeping control of the Senate.
“This is a time of turmoil, the likes of which we’ve never seen no matter how long we’ve been in the game,” said Sen. John McCain, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee. He said in an interview that he’d back the eventual nominee but “obviously (Trump) would not be my selection.”
“I think I prefer others who have a better grasp in my view of the challenges we face,” McCain said, adding that he will stay neutral through the duration of the primary.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said he “would have to do a lot of soul-searching” if Trump became the nominee, suggesting he’d need to separate himself from the top of the ticket. Kinzinger, a Jeb Bush supporter, said he was “very concerned” about the rhetoric from Trump and what it would mean in a general election.
“I think his tone has been bad — it’s not an inclusive tone,” said Kinzinger, a leading moderate. “Only 30-something percent, maybe of Americans identify as Republicans, which means to win a national election you have to reach out.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan said party leaders would back a Trump nomination, but he made a veiled critique at the divisive rhetoric espoused by the businessman. “We don’t want to have another President like this one who divides our country,” Ryan told reporters.
The comments underscore the challenge party leaders face as they grapple with a raucous primary that is dominating the airwaves. They want to harness the energy of the grassroots that is powering the candidacies of Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, while also aiming to broaden their party’s image to moderate and swing-state voters who will be essential in the general election.
Nowhere is that more urgent than the race for the Senate, where 24 GOP seats are in contention, including in states like Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Florida. To stay in the majority, Republicans need to ensure they lose no more than four seats if they don’t win back the White House.
Speaking to reporters here at a Marriott hotel on the waterfront, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that his conference would try to present a more responsible face for voters.
“Our presidential candidates are out there beating each other up at the moment, and that’s going to solve itself at some point during the process,” McConnell said. By contrast, he said, congressional Republicans are “going to do issue development to try to get ready for 2017.”