Donald Trump’s controversies are starting to take a toll on even his most ardent supporters in Georgia. No prominent state Republican official has defected from the campaign, but many of Georgia’s top officeholders find it increasingly difficult to justify their support for him.
Some have begrudgingly cast him as the lesser of two evils. Some have kept at arm’s length, refusing to be held accountable for his controversial remarks. And some continue to wrestle with their decision to toe the party line and support him.
“Every time he says something that makes me cringe, or something that appears to be indecent, it makes me wonder how in the world can I vote for this guy,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, a Macon Republican. “I keep having to come back to the Supreme Court nominations. But, boy, it scares the bejeebies out of me — the thought that he could actually be the president.”
Trump’s decision to hire Stephen K. Bannon, the anti-establishment chief of Breitbart News, didn’t reassure supporters hoping for a pivot away from his firebrand ways. Nor did his rare expression of regret for his rhetoric, or the resignation of campaign chairman Paul Manafort, whose previous job consulting for the pro-Russian former president of Ukraine had become a distraction.
“It makes me worry more because it appears they are doubling down on letting Trump be Trump,” Peake said.
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In other states, Trump’s flailing campaign has led to a string of defections. At least seven Republican U.S. senators have refused to endorse him, and several sitting GOP congressmen said they will vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton or Libertarian Gary Johnson.
But in Georgia, Trump has so far been spared the embarrassing string of objectors who have hobbled his campaign elsewhere. While many of the state’s conservative voters and activists have joined the Never Trump movement, the state’s elected GOP hierarchy remains behind him — if not always happily.
“It’s a choice between bad and worse — and I’m choosing bad,” said state Sen. Renee Unterman, one of her chamber’s two female Republicans and an early supporter of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, then Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, then whoever was not Trump.
“If you go on down the list, Trump was my last choice,” she said. “I have a lot of reservations about him, but I also have reservations about Clinton. I just think it’s a sad state of affairs that the Republican Party had so many candidates and we ended up with a reality TV show host.”
Some, such as U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, made clear they won’t apologize for his miscues, including his feud with the family of a slain Muslim U.S. soldier and his false assertion that President Barack Obama is the founder of the Islamic State.
Even U.S. Sen. David Perdue, his highest-profile supporter in Georgia, acknowledged his misgivings with some of Trump’s misfires. He said Tuesday that Trump remains the best “alternative” in the contest but he wishes the New York businessman would keep a tighter lid on what he says.
“Would I like for him to be a lot more circumspect? Sure. We all would,” he said, switching to a critique of Clinton: “But we’ve had eight years of failure, in the economy, in social services, in foreign policy, in education. She has not offered any change.”
No Republican revolt
Left unmentioned is the political fallout for a rebel Republican elected official who publicly opposes Trump.
Most Georgia contests are settled in party primaries, not in the November election, and Clinton remains wildly unpopular with the dedicated Republican voters who decide those contests. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed this month a near-universal disdain for Clinton among GOP voters in Georgia — she logged a 95 percent unfavorable rating.
And Republican voters such as Rich Mason, a 56-year-old from Sandy Springs, will likely look to hold them accountable if they don’t. He said he was holding his nose — “and I hope I don’t vomit” — when he votes for Trump and that other Republicans should follow suit.
“The country is definitely on the wrong track. Look at the unemployment rate,” he said. “Look at the loss of jobs. Look at the struggles of the people who aren’t college-educated.”
Under Obama, unemployment that peaked at 10 percent in 2010 has been cut in half and U.S. economic growth has outpaced other developed nations. But economic inequality has grown worse and federal statistics suggest household income for the average U.S. family — adjusted for inflation — is about $4,000 less than it was in the late 1990s.
Democrats are already eager to paint support for Trump as a litmus test in future contests, with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed promising that voters won’t forget who stood by the GOP nominee should he get shellacked in November.
“We need to make it clear that if you don’t withdraw your support or your endorsement of Don Trump, then history and the rest of us are really never going to forgive failing to act,” Reed said on MSNBC.
That’s not far from Joe Wilkinson’s mind, either. He started his political career as a first-grader handing out “I like Ike” key chains at a Buckhead drugstore, worked for Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, and served for 16 years in the Georgia House before announcing his retirement this year. And he still can’t wrap his head around Trump.
“This has been a struggle. I’m frustrated — more frustrated than I’ve ever been before,” he said. “I’ve been doing this my whole life, and I’ve never seen anything like this. But I’ve always supported the nominee of our party.”
Another Republican seemingly teetering on the edge is Will Carter, a delegate to last month’s Republican convention who staunchly defended Trump against his detractors in Cleveland. Now he says he’s “exceedingly pessimistic” about Trump’s chances in November, predicting the New York businessman will go down in flames.
“We have literally scraped the bottom of the barrel,” he said. “We have a pathological liar on one side and then a narcissist on the other. But I will remain a supporter of Trump — he is the lesser of two evils.”