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Collateral Damage: Trump Could Take the GOP Down With Him

A Sunday special edition of First Read, NBC's morning political newsletter.

Giuliani: Trump Will Remain in the Race Despite GOP Dissent 0:55

Collateral Damage: Trump could take the GOP down with him

ST. LOUIS -- We’ll be blunt: BEFORE Friday’s bombshell news, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was already starting to look like a lost cause, with tonight’s debate shaping up to be a make-or-break moment for him and the entire GOP. Indeed, our new NBC/WSJ/Marist polls conducted before Friday find Trump trailing in Florida by three points and in Pennsylvania by 12 points. What’s more, they show Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) down four points and with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) barely ahead by two. And so AFTER Friday, here’s the nightmare situation for Republicans: You have a good chunk of the party criticizing Trump and demanding him to drop out of the race, and you have the other part (especially Trump’s supporters) fighting back. Thirty days before a national election, that hurts voter and volunteer morale, it dampens turnout, and it all makes it harder to win races up and down the ballot. When it becomes every politician for himself or herself -- we saw this play out with Republicans in 2006 and 2008, and with Democrats in 2014 -- it usually doesn’t turn out well for that party. Is the House at risk for the GOP? “We have to wait a week and see,” the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman tells First Read.

Shades of Todd Akin and Mark Foley?

The New York Times’ Nate Cohn compares Trump’s lewd comments about women from back in 2005 to what happened to Todd Akin and Mark Foley. “In August 2012, Claire McCaskill and Todd Akin were in a competitive Missouri Senate race before Mr. Akin, the Republican candidate, said that victims of what he called ‘legitimate rape’ very rarely became pregnant. Republican officials from all over the country condemned him and called on him to step aside. The national party offered him little to no support over the last few months of the race. He lost to Ms. McCaskill by 16 percentage points, 55 percent to 39 percent, in a state that Mitt Romney won by nine points. Over all, he lost about 20 percent of the voters who supported Mr. Romney, according to exit polls.” As for Foley, “In late September [2006], it was revealed that Mr. Foley, a Republican congressman, had sent lewd messages to former congressional pages. At least some House Republicans were aware of it, and didn’t do anything. The G.O.P.’s standing in the polls collapsed, the Democratic wave built quickly, and Republicans in safe districts soon found themselves in jeopardy.”

Why it’s so hard for Republicans to run away from Trump

Twenty-four hours after the news of Trump’s lewd 2005 comments caught on microphone, Republicans began to run away from Trump.

  • Among those who called him to drop out, per NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell: Sen. Mark Kirk, Sen. John Thune, Sen. Mike Lee, Sen. Mike Crapo, Senate candidate Joe Heck, Rep. Mike Coffman, Rep. Martha Roby, Rep, Bradley Byrne.
  • Among those who said they won't vote for him, per Caldwell: Sen. John McCain, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Sen. Rob Portman, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito.

But this statement from Ayotte’s Democratic opponent Maggie Hassan underscores why it will be so hard for these Republicans to fully disassociate themselves from Trump: “For months, Kelly Ayotte stood by Trump as he demeaned women, minorities, people with disabilities, Gold Star families, and was deemed a danger to our national security, even going so far as saying he should 'absolutely' be a role model for children. What Kelly Ayotte doesn’t seem to understand is the chance to show courage has long past, and her hollow words today reveal as much about her own character as they do Donald Trump's.” Ouch.

Why it’s hard for Trump, GOP to play the Bill Clinton card

As Trump suggested in his statement apologizing for his 2005 comments, he’s likely to bring up Bill Clinton’s sexual past in response. “I’ve said some foolish things but there’s a big difference between the words and actions of other people. Bill Clinton has actually abused women and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims. We will discuss this more in the coming days. See you at the debate on Sunday.” But it won’t be easy for Trump to play the Bill Clinton card. Why? Just look at these past comments from Trump:

  • On Monica Lewinsky in 2008: "Look at the trouble Bill Clinton got into with something that was totally un-important. And they tried to impeach him, which was nonsense. And yet Bush got us into this horrible war with lies -- by lying..
  • More on Clinton and Lewinsky: ''He handled the Monica situation disgracefully. It's sad because he would go down as a great president if he had not had this scandal. People would have been more forgiving if he'd had an affair with a really beautiful woman of sophistication.”
  • On Paula Jones: “Paula Jones is a loser, but the fact is that she may be responsible for bringing down a president indirectly.”

Why this Trump controversy is different

Trump, of course, has said so many controversial things over the past year-plus. But to some (but certainly not to all), those controversial comments were an act -- someone who was performing to his GOP audience. But this 2005 audio is different because it was a private and candid moment.

The WikiLeaks leak will also come up at tonight’s debate

Hillary Clinton has her own issue to deal with at tonight’s debate -- the hack into Clinton Campaign Chair John Podesta’s emails that produced this information on Clinton’s paid speeches. NBC's Alex Seitz-Wald and Tom Winter: “Hillary Clinton apparently told a group of Latin American bankers in 2013 that she envisions a ‘hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders,’ according to purportedly hacked emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta released Friday by WikiLeaks... Most of the excerpts come from a January email sent by Clinton's research director, Tony Carrk, to top campaign aides, which laid out potential political vulnerabilities if the transcripts were made public. ‘There is a lot of policy positions that we should give an extra scrub,’ he wrote.”

More on our new NBC/WSJ/Marist polls

Clinton’s lead in Florida and Pennsylvania is due to her performance with minorities, whites with college degrees and urban voters. In Florida, Clinton runs ahead of Trump in a two-way contest among African Americans (86%-6%), Latinos (63%-27%), likely voters ages 18-29 (63%-31%) and women (51%-41%). Trump, meanwhile, leads among men (48%-41%) and whites (55%-36%). But there is an important difference here: Trump is ahead among whites without a college degree by a 62%-to-29% margin. Yet among whites with a college degree, Trump is up by only four points, 48%-44%. Geographically, Trump holds the advantage in Florida’s Panhandle (52%-42%) and the Tampa area (49%-39%), while Clinton is ahead in the Miami area (57%-34%) and Orlando (50%-39%). In Pennsylvania, Clinton has equally large leads among African American likely voters (88%-6%) and those ages 18-29 (54%-37%). But she holds a nearly 2-to-1 advantage among whites with a college degree (58%-32%). In Philadelphia, Clinton leads Trump by a whopping 74%-to-21% margin, and her advantage is almost as big in the Philadelphia suburbs, 64%-28%. Trump, by contrast, holds the edge in the western part of the state (45%-42%) and in the Northeast (49%-39%).

On the trail

The second presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump takes places from Washington University in St. Louis at 9:00 pm ET.

Countdown to third presidential debate: 10 days

Countdown to Election Day: 30 days