Only a few hours had passed since Donald Trump was exposed on videotape bragging about kissing and grabbing women without their consent when Rep. Jason Chaffetz joined the growing group of Republican officeholders willing to publicly break with their party’s presidential nominee.
“I’m out,” he said on a Salt Lake City evening newscast. “We have a 15-year-old daughter, and if I can’t look her in the eye and tell her these things, I can’t endorse this person.”
Less than three weeks later, Chaffetz has now joined another club: that of GOP lawmakers who broke with Trump after The Washington Post published the 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording, only to later make clear that Trump has their vote.
Chaffetz tweeted late Wednesday that he “will not defend or endorse” Trump but that “I am voting for him.” Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, he added, “is that bad.”
The high-profile chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is only the latest Republican officeholder to back off what appeared to be principled rebukes of Trump in the face of a political wake-up call: Most Republican voters are a lot more loyal to Trump than they are to the Jason Chaffetzes of the world.
“There is an intensity to the Trump voter that I haven’t seen in my life in politics,” said veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz. “These people don’t care what Trump says or what people say about Trump. They will follow him to the end of the earth, and they will follow him if he says to oppose these people for congressional leadership. That’s the calculation right now.”
An NBC News/SurveyMoney poll published Tuesday exposed the electorate that GOP officeholders will face on Nov. 8 and beyond. Asked whom they trust more to lead the Republican Party, Trump or House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), nearly two-thirds chose Trump over Ryan, who has routinely criticized Trump’s most controversial remarks.
A handful of House members have joined Chaffetz in reiterating their support for Trump after seeming to pull it after the “Access Hollywood” video’s release. And of the half-dozen GOP senators who called on Trump to withdraw from the presidential race in the immediate aftermath, three of them — including Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Republican conference chairman — have since indicated they still plan to vote for Trump.
Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), for instance, was among the first to say he could “no longer endorse” Trump. “His repeated actions and comments toward women have been disrespectful, profane and demeaning,” he said, adding that his “locker room talk” excuse is “inconsistent with protecting women from abusive, disparaging treatment.”
This week, however, he revealed a change of heart, declaring Trump a superior choice to Clinton in a statement: “We must elect a president who will appoint strong Supreme Court justices who will interpret the Constitution as it was written and who will help lead us to a stronger free market economy and a more limited constitutional government.”
Most of the officeholders who have attempted a Trump two-step can point to a close reading of their initial statements: Those who lambasted Trump after the recording emerged did not say — whether consciously or not — that they would not vote for him. Some, like Chaffetz and Crapo, said they were no longer “endorsing” him, then later drew a distinction between their endorsement and their ballot.
Others, like Thune and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), called on Trump to step aside and allow running mate Mike Pence to lead the Republican ticket. When it became clear Trump would not step aside, they stood by their nominee. “I never said I was not voting for our Republican ticket,” Fischer told a radio station on Oct. 11, three days after tweeting that Trump’s comments were “disgusting and totally unacceptable under any circumstance.”
A few GOP lawmakers have appeared to withdraw their support for Trump only to end up in a state of limbo, saying only that they will not vote for Clinton. Sen. Mark Kirk (D-Ill.), in a tough reelection fight, has floated writing in retired Army generals Colin Powell or David Petraeus. Rep. Joseph J. Heck (R-Nev.), running for a key Senate seat, repudiated Trump — earning him the ire of some Nevada Republicans — but has still not ruled out voting for Trump.
“My position is I’m not voting for Hillary Clinton, and I’ll make a decision when I walk into the [booth] on Nov. 8,” Heck said in a Talking Points Memo story published Thursday.
Chaffetz’s reversal came seemingly out of the blue. Utah is the Republican state that is most skeptical of Trump’s candidacy, with some recent polls showing him losing to independent candidate Evan McMullin, and less than 48 hours before his tweet, Chaffetz told The Post that he was “done telling people who to vote for.”
“I’ve said what I’ve said,” he said. “Look, I originally endorsed Marco [Rubio]. If my endorsement meant anything, Mitt Romney would be president. I endorsed Mitt Romney. That didn’t happen. I endorsed Marco Rubio. That didn’t happen. I endorsed Trump, then I withdrew my endorsement. So I’m done telling people who to vote for.”
Spokeswoman M.J. Henshaw said Chaffetz had no comment beyond the tweet.
But his political calculation is more complex than those now locked in tight reelection races. He occupies a safe Republican seat, and his continued tenure as Oversight chairman is not at risk. But he is already positioning himself to be an aggressive inquisitor of a Clinton administration, and he is widely seen as having grander ambitions — whether in the House, where he briefly floated a run for speaker last year, or in his home state of Utah, where he is a frequently discussed candidate for governor or U.S. senator in 2018.
Jason P. Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, said Chaffetz appears wary of breaking in any significant way with the GOP — the party that has dominated politics in the Beehive State for generations.
“These are candidates that want to be in the Republican Party for a long period of time, and this is one of those issues that has the potential to keep coming back over and over again,” he said. “It’s not good for any of them, four years down the line, eight years down the line, for someone to say, ‘What are you talking about? You abandoned your party.’”
And for all of the talk about the state’s Trump skepticism, Perry said, there remains a significant subset of GOP voters who are backing Trump: “They do not want to thumb their nose at that group, because that is still an important group.”
Even if Chaffetz’s ambitions remained on Capitol Hill, Luntz said it would be foolish for him to assume that the Trump fervor will quickly die down after the election. “You don’t get this engaged in politics and then turn it off in a single day,” he said. “It takes months, if not years, to tone it down.”
If Chaffetz was to make another run at the speaker’s chair, Luntz said, “he could not get the majority if he has millions of Trump people screaming at him.”