Ryan, McConnell scramble to protect GOP majorities amid Trump turmoil

Story highlights

  • Republicans are worried Trump's scorched-earth strategy will depress GOP turnout
  • Democrats say getting the 30 seats they need to retake the House is still a high hurdle

Washington (CNN)House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are scrambling to protect Republican majorities in Congress from being wiped out by the backlash following a string of women alleging that Donald Trump sexually assaulted them.

Ryan, who has not withdrawn his endorsement of Trump, told donors on a private call Wednesday that he doesn't want to go to war with the Republican presidential nominee. But the concern now, the speaker said, is that Trump's poll numbers are worse than 2008 Republican nominee Sen. John McCain's were during the Democratic wave that year when the GOP lost seats.
They need to stem their House losses now, he warned.
    A Ryan aide told CNN the call was positive and donors backed the strategy to focus on keeping GOP seats. But the collateral damage from Trump's sliding stand in the polls and combative posture has turned what most thought unthinkable -- a Democratic House -- into a real possibility.
    "Because of Donald Trump, we will absolutely pick up more seats that originally expected," Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, of New Mexico, the campaign chairman for House Democrats, told CNN Thursday in a phone interview.
    A key reason why the GOP is panicking: They are worried Trump's scorched-earth strategy will depress GOP turnout by convincing many college-educated, suburban white voters -- a key constituency for Republicans -- to stay home.
    Since the news of Trump's tape surfaced last week and a flood of stories came out late Wednesday, Ryan has avoided any opportunity to have to address the bombshell that is tearing his party apart. The speaker quickly jetted off Thursday after giving a speech to Wisconsin business leaders, not taking any questions despite advertising that the event would allow 30 minutes for questions.
    For his part, Trump has lashed out at the speaker for telling his members Monday morning that he's done defending the real estate mogul, criticizing him at his rallies and suggesting in an interview on Fox News he won't be speaker next year.
    House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi predicted on a call with House Democrats that if the election were held today, Democrats would regain control of the House.
    A day later, she reiterated to reporters in Texas that a large victory for Hillary Clinton means a Democratic sweep both in Washington and around the country.
    "I think we'll have a very strong election of Secretary Hillary Clinton and her success," Pelosi said Tuesday in Texas, reiterating her forecast that "If she wins by seven points, I think we can win state houses, state legislators, the Congress, House and Senate."

    Republicans pressured to denounce Trump

    McConnell has publicly stressed for months that math to keep a GOP Senate worked against the party, telling reporters recently it was a "knock-down, drag-out, sort of like a knife fight in a phone booth."
    McConnell continues to back Trump, but repeatedly refuses to engage in any questions about allegations about Trump. He and other GOP leaders have instructed those in tough races across the country to do what they need to separate from the businessman to carve out their own brand.
    The numbers don't look good for Republicans.
    Polling in states with marquee Senate races show Clinton's lead over Trump growing, and these don't take into account the dynamic of women publicly giving personal accounts of Trump assaulting them that have only this week come to light.
    In Pennsylvania, a Bloomberg poll shows Clinton leading Trump by 9 percentage points, 48% to 39%. GOP Sen. Pat Toomey has avoided answering whether he would vote for Trump.
    After the video emerged last Friday of Trump using lewd and sexually aggressive language about women, the Pennsylvania Republican told reporters Monday he had "serious concerns."
    That wasn't good enough for his Democratic opponent, Katie McGinty, who, after new reports about Trump came out, slammed the incumbent in a conference call with reporters for not coming out against the GOP nominee.
    "How can Pat Toomey still be standing by Donald Trump as he is? When by Donald Trump's own bragging and the corroborating stories of women -- the women that Donald Trump attacked -- these women are describing actions that the senator has said amount to sexual assault and a very, very serious crime," McGinty said.
    Toomey, along with other Republican candidates in swing states, are in a politically perilous situation because many of the Republican base's supporters -- who are needed on Election Day -- support Trump and might turned off by congressional candidates who openly oppose the GOP nominee.
    Nevada GOP Rep. Joe Heck, who is running to fill the Senate seat of retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, is learning that denouncing Trump has its downsides to publicly criticizing Trump. He had expressed support over recent months, but withdrew his backing last weekend. Since then he has been berated by conservatives who back Trump and are now threatening to vote against him next month.
    Ryan has spent time campaigning in his home state for Sen. Ron Johnson, who is in a neck-and-neck race with former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold. The latest Marquette University poll shows Johnson doing better that Trump -- he trails his Democratic opponent by two points, 46%-48%, while Trump is behind Clinton 37-44%.
    In North Carolina -- another key battleground for the White House and Senate -- a new Suffolk poll has GOP Sen. Richard Burr with a lead against Democratic challenger Deborah Ross by 4 percentage points, and has Clinton leading Trump with a slim 45%-43% margin.
    A Gallup poll of Republicans indicated that Trump's approval rating within his own party is dropping. Earlier this month, 69% of Republicans said they approved of Trump, but after the release of the 2005 video showing him making sexually aggressive remarks about women and Sunday's debate, that number fell to 65%.
    Among Democrats, Clinton's favorable ratings rose slightly in that Gallup poll from 81% to 84%.
    The key question now is who turns out on Election Day and will those Republicans who are helping keep these Senate and House GOP candidates in a position to win actually show up after hearing more about reports about Trump's treatment of women.

    Can Republicans separate from Trump?

    It's unclear whether House Republicans efforts to separate themselves from Trump will withstand the final three weeks of a unpredictable campaign. Their game plan for months has been to emphasize individual records and discuss local issues.
    In some cases, members have withdrawn support, denounced the GOP nominee or ignored the top of the ticket. In recent weeks, Republican members and strategists have touted their own polling in competitive races across the country showing GOP candidates outperforming Trump.
    Katie Martin, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, insists that they are not seeing any real shift in races around the country.
    "While TV presidential pundits want to look into their crystal balls to tell America what will happen in 26 days, our data is painting a very different picture on the landscape of House races," Martin said.
    And the NRCC spokeswoman also name-checked the current top House Democrat, whom many GOP candidates are incorporating into their campaign ads.
    "If Democrats think the winning message this year is to make Nancy Pelosi speaker again, they are once again proving just how out of touch they are," Martin added.
    Two senior House GOP strategists told CNN Thursday they aren't making major adjustments in how they approach their races -- leaders are saying they support each member's assessment about how their latest polls aren't "showing a change from weeks prior."
    But the strategists added that it might be too early to see results yet about whether what was on the tapes is resonating.
    But House Democrats, who have been working hard to tie GOP candidate to Trump say the latest allegations against him are filtering the advantage down-ballot to their candidates across the country.
    One senior House Democratic strategist admitted that while some polls do show Republicans in decent shape, they are feeling good that Clinton could win with a large enough margin that it would be very difficult for GOP candidates in House districts and would obliterate those who may now have 4- to 5-point leads.
    These Democrats say getting the 30 seats they need to retake the House is still a high hurdle, and admit the limiting factor is not having enough money to help amplify their national message of running against Trump.

    Parties relying on super PACs

    Both parties are relying on outside super PACs to help boost their candidates, and earlier this fall, the Congressional Leadership Fund, the GOP group affiliated with Ryan, announced it doubled donations this cycle.
    This week CLF, announced it was branching out from its focus on buying television ads and would be deploying significant resources to help several House Republicans target their messages and support ground game plans.
    The House Majority PAC, the counterpart helping House Democrats, has also broken their past fundraising goals and is releasing a flood of new ads linking GOP candidates to Trump.
    Jeb Fain, the spokesman for the group, said as GOP members try to make this about other issues in their specific districts, "ultimately this is going to be a national election and Trump is a major factor. House Republicans created this monster."
    In a sign of the expanded playing field, House Democrats are now putting money into a normally red district in Kansas, where GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder is in a tightening race with Democratic challenger Jay Sidie. Lujan also pointed to California GOP Rep. Darrell Issa and Florida Rep. John Mica as two incumbents who are facing stronger than expected re-election contests.
    Lujan encouraged the continuation of Trump's strategy to keep up blistering attacks, saying the Democratic base was" getting more and more fired up and independents are getting more disgusted with Trump's candidacy."
    The New Mexico Democrat hoped Trump wouldn't listen to Republicans who want him to turn his focus on Clinton's emails and other vulnerabilities, saying, "if Donald Trump has another week like he just had, that will mean more seats for Democrats."