By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
I tried to write about something besides the presidential campaign, and just can’t. I apologize. I’ve covered other things this past week but can’t look away from this train wreck, even when I want to.
Arkansas’ top Republican elected officials probably feel the same way.
After Donald Trump’s 2005 recordings were made public, a number of them made their strongest statements yet against the candidate whom none of them wanted to be the nominee. But so far, they have not joined others across the country who withdrew their support, including both senators from the states of Alaska, Nebraska and Arizona, including Sen. John McCain. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has all but disowned Trump.
Well, Rep. Bruce Westerman did say after the recordings that he would support letting the party’s vice presidential nominee, Gov. Mike Pence, take the top spot. However, on Monday, he told reporters that Trump did OK in Sunday’s debate and still has his support.
Sen. Tom Cotton made a strong statement while in the middle of a four-day trip to Iowa, where his appearances included the main address at the big-deal Reagan Dinner in Des Moines. Yes, that’s the same Iowa that hosts the nation’s first presidential caucus three-and-a-half years from now, so Cotton may be spending a lot more time there soon. According to his prepared remarks, Cotton said Trump had to ask for forgiveness in the debate and make the case that he was better than Hillary Clinton. If not, he should step aside. After the debate, Cotton said Trump had successfully made that case, but it’s a safe bet he won’t be walking door to door on Trump’s behalf. He’s got other doors to knock.
Sen. John Boozman released a statement saying that if anyone ever spoke about his wife, daughters or granddaughters the way Trump had spoken about women in that video, “they would be shopping for a new set of teeth.” He deplored the state of the campaign but did not rescind his previous support of Trump.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Trump’s conduct in 2005 was “reprehensible and cannot be justified” but he said the election should be about national security, the economy and the Supreme Court. Asked if still supports Trump, Hutchinson said his statement stood as it was, which means yes.
The rest of Arkansas’ Republican leadership released similar statements condemning Trump’s remarks but not calling for him to leave the race. Those included Rep. Rick Crawford, Rep. French Hill, Rep. Steve Womack, Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who had begun making national TV appearances on Trump’s behalf before the recordings were released.
The highest profile state Republican to call on Trump to withdraw was the Speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives, Jeremy Gillam, who said in a statement, ”Although I have not been a supporter of Mr. Trump in the past, I have remained hopeful that he would give me a reason to vote for my party’s nominee. I no longer have that hope. I believe he should withdraw from the race immediately.”
Gillam is a huge “Star Wars” fan, which may not be a coincidence. The saga’s most important characters are imperfect individuals who overcome their personal flaws and eventually triumph in a galactic confrontation of good versus evil. Even the villain, Darth Vader, becomes the hero in the end. But some characters never redeem themselves and never earn the audience’s support.
This presidential election has been a tough one for many in the state party’s leadership. None of them endorsed Trump initially. Most first supported Gov. Mike Huckabee, who never had any traction, and then many transferred their support to Sen. Marco Rubio, who was steamrolled by the Trump juggernaut. Trump’s lifestyle, personality, and personal history aren’t good fits for them, nor are his policies. He’s not really a conservative, and they are.
But they made the rational calculation that Trump was their party’s nominee, he’s better than the alternative, and he has the support of a lot of Republican primary voters. He will win Arkansas in November, big.
It looks like he will lose the election, though. If that happens, Republican elected officials will try to return to the days of nominating candidates they can fully support, like Cotton or Pence or Ryan. We’ll see if Republican primary voters will let them.