The realization is setting in among GOP leaders that the way Trump has acted as the party's nominee has the potential not only to cost Republicans the White House in 2016 but also to damage the party's brand among key constituencies — Hispanics, most obviously — that could set them back for far longer than a single election cycle.
“If anybody was looking for an off-ramp, this is probably it,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in the New York Times on Tuesday. “There’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary.”
He's right. For party leaders who've lined up with Trump amid polling that suggested he was running surprisingly competitively against Democrat Hillary Clinton, the time is rapidly approaching to either hop off the Trump train or decide you are riding it all the way to Nov. 8.
At the moment, it appears as though most party leaders are trying to dangle a leg off the train while still holding on.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Tuesday that Trump's remarks about Judge Gonzalo Curiel are "the textbook definition of a racist comment" before adding: "Do I believe Hillary Clinton is the answer? I do not."
That echoed a sentiment expressed by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) on Tuesday morning on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
"That's not where we are in our country," Corker said of Trump's Curiel comments. But Corker then refused — three times — to answer whether he thinks Trump is "fit" to be president.
Then there was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who agreed Monday that the 2016 contest is really a "lesser-of-two-evils election."
And Tim Scott, the first black Republican elected to the Senate since 1979, slammed Trump's comments but didn't walk away from his endorsement of the real estate billionaire.
Here's the thing: Trump is rapidly making it impossible for Republicans such as Ryan, Corker, McConnell and Scott to stay in that self-created limbo.
Think of the logical inconsistency in Ryan's comments Tuesday. Yes, Trump is engaging in a "textbook" example of racism. No, I will not rescind my support. What conclusion can possibly be drawn from those comments? That, sure, Trump is playing with racism but he's still better than Clinton?
The way Ryan sets up the argument — if it's not Trump then it's Clinton — bypasses a third option that the likes of Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush and Graham have already taken: Choose not to vote in this election because you cannot in good conscience support either of the candidates.
I get that no politician who spends his or her life asking people to vote and emphasizing how important doing so is for democracy wants to publicly choose not to participate in an election. But how is what Ryan is doing right now not worse for himself and the broader Republican brand? Yes, my candidate is a racist, but he's still my candidate because Clinton?
Most Republican elected officials have adopted the hold-my-nose-and-be-for-Trump position in the five weeks since he clinched the nomination. Trump's comments about Curiel — and his quadrupling down on them in the past 72 hours — suggest that grinning and bearing it may no longer be a viable option for Republicans hoping to have a future in national politics or even GOP politicians looking to hold onto the gains the party has made in recent elections.
Trump's words and actions are forcing a choice: You are either for him all the way or you are not. Increasingly, there is no room in between those two poles.