Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, left, and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last month. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

 

We’ve argued that the media’s desire to preserve the excitement — and ratings — of a competitive horse race has led to disingenuous reporting suggesting that the presidential race is still competitive. My colleague Stuart Rothenberg suffers from no such malady: “A dispassionate examination of the data, combined with a coldblooded look at the candidates, the campaigns and presidential elections, produces only one possible conclusion: Hillary Clinton will defeat Donald Trump in November, and the margin isn’t likely to be as close as Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney.”

As Rothenberg points out, look at any data points — national polling, battleground polling, fundraising, party support, candidate ability, etc. — and one must honestly acknowledge that Trump needs a “miracle” to win.

The point at which this ceased to be a theoretically competitive race to an inevitable disaster was arguably Trump’s attack on the Gold Star parents of Capt. Humayun Khan. It became evident that even devoted Republicans could not defend Trump’s conduct nor attest to his emotional stability. Clinton wrapped up the “he’s unfit” argument, and the race became a referendum on Trump, one he had virtually no hope of winning. You don’t have to be informed or political to conclude that there is something seriously wrong with Trump, so wrong that he shouldn’t be in public office, let alone the Oval Office. There is now, we suspect, a hard ceiling (45 percent, maybe?) for his support.

The number of influential Republican officials saying that they can't vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is growing as Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) pledges she won't vote for Trump. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

The Khan episode was also the best opportunity for GOP leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to jump ship and begin a “don’t give Clinton a blank check” race. Even if he and other Trump supporters abandon Trump now, it would be hard to disguise that as anything other than unprincipled desperation. If they did not leave Trump over his comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel or the Khans, it’ll be hard to come up with a justification other than panic for leaving him now.

The question then becomes whether it is too late to prevent a catastrophic loss for Republicans, certainly taking down the Senate and maybe the House as well. While Republicans had quietly suggested they could shift gears in October to a ticket-splitting appeal, it is essential, we would suggest, to start that now. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), for example, went from 3 points down in early July to 10 points down in late July. At some point, donors and volunteers lose heart, voters become demoralized and the polls become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

In Pennsylvania, by contrast, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) has kept the race close. The Koch brothers, wise enough to repudiate Trump, understand what is at risk. They launched a $2 million TV ad campaign to try to keep Toomey above water. Other third-party groups and the Republican National Committee as a whole should be doing the same, namely prioritizing Toomey over Trump. The same needs to take place in Ohio, where Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) remains competitive.

The shift to a save-the-Congress race requires not simply an investment in Senate and vulnerable House contenders but widespread refusal to support Trump either monetarily or rhetorically. Aside from stepping down, the best thing RNC Chairman Reince Priebus could do would be to make the ticket-splitting argument the official party stance. Groups like America Rising, GOP surrogates and elected officials should forget about saving Trump from Hillary Clinton and start saving Republicans from Trump.