‘Ostrich’ Republicans cling to election hope

New Hampshire’s motto is “Live free or die”. For Kelly Ayotte, the state’s embattled Republican senator, it should read “Caught between a rock and a hard place”.

Ms Ayotte, who must hold her seat if Republicans are to retain control of the US Senate, personifies the quandary into which Donald Trump has thrown his party. Last week Ms Ayotte said she would withdraw her support for the property developer turned presidential contender following the leak of a 2005 tape in which he boasts of his power over women.

“I cannot support a candidate who brags about degrading and assaulting women,” Ms Ayotte said. This was only days after she proclaimed Mr Trump a role model for children. She later said she had “misspoken”.

Having previously said she would be voting for Mr Trump, Ms Ayotte now plans to write in the name of his running mate, Mike Pence. No such option exists on the ballot. More to the point, Ms Ayotte’s late burst of conviction has reinforced the impression she is forever holding up her finger to the wind.

Maggie Hassan, Ms Ayotte’s Democratic opponent, and outgoing New Hampshire governor, describes her as “Craven Kelly” — an ironic echo of the monikers Mr Trump gives his foes.

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President Barack Obama, who addressed a rally in Ohio on Thursday, goes a step further. Instead of congratulating Ms Ayotte and a handful of others for rejecting Mr Trump, he ridiculed them. “They knew better … and they didn’t say anything,” said Mr Obama. “You claim to be the party of family values and you nominate this guy?”

Irrespective of ideological bent, Mr Trump has left Republicans no place to hide. Ms Ayotte is among a minority who has un-endorsed him in the past week. This also includes Rob Portman, the Ohio senator, and John McCain, the 2008 presidential nominee.

As Mr Trump slumps in the polls, their hope is to benefit from the increasingly rare practice of split-ticket voting. Mr Trump is trailing his rival Hillary Clinton by double digits in key rust-belt states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan. Once impregnable Republican strongholds, such as Georgia, Arizona and even Utah, are coming into play.

Mrs Clinton leads Mr Trump by 10 percentage points in New Hampshire, a prosperous and independent-minded New England state. In the Senate race Ms Ayotte is still level pegging with Ms Hassan. It is the most expensive election in New Hampshire’s history. With 1.8m people, the projected $100m in spending will exceed the total cost of the Brexit referendum in the UK — a country of 65m.

As prospects of a Clinton victory rise, the urgency of retaining Republican control of Congress grows. A third of Senate seats are up for grabs on November 8 as well as all 435 places in the House of Representatives. Outside money is pouring in.

Unlike Mr Trump, Ms Ayotte knows elections are won in the middle ground. Her tone is a million miles from Mr Trump’s. “It takes someone who is looking for common ground — for bridge-builders — to get things done,” she told students at the Tuck School of Business on Dartmouth College’s leafy campus in the town of Hanover.

She touted her record of working with Democratic senators, such as Tim Kaine, Mrs Clinton’s running mate. One such cause is to boost workplace protection for pregnant women. Another is to inject federal support into states such as New Hampshire that are suffering from a heroin and opioid pill epidemic. In a one-hour session with MBA students, she does not once mention Mr Trump’s name. The students are too polite to make her.

Call it the ostrich strategy — stick your head in the ground and hope the danger passes. But Mr Trump has other plans. His campaign has made it clear his only shot at winning will be to drive down the vote for Mrs Clinton by throwing as much mud at her as possible.

That means spreading conspiracy theories about Mrs Clinton’s secret meetings with international bankers to subvert US sovereignty — a line he first used on Thursday. It means predicting Isis will take over the US if Mrs Clinton wins. It includes reiterating his promise to jail Mrs Clinton if he is elected. The next 24 days promise to be the most demagogic in modern US politics.

“The scary thing about Trump is that he’s prepared to kill the party’s down-ballot chances — he doesn’t care,” says a senior New Hampshire Republican, who asked for his name to be withheld. “He will burn the barn down and to hell with the consequences.”

The final stretch promises to be an electoral waterboarding for Ms Ayotte. At her rallies activists from Planned Parenthood, the women’s healthcare group, distribute free condoms labelled “Protect yourself from Donald Trump”. At every chance, journalists ask why she only waited until now to discover Mr Trump’s true nature. There is no good answer.

To be fair to Ms Ayotte, there never was. Whether you think Mr Trump is the strong man America needs, or a threat to the republic, no Republican can escape his coat tails.

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