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Trump’s Troubles Cast a Shadow on GOP’s Senate Hopes

Image: Potential Republican 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump listens as he is introduced at the Tuscan Kitchen in Salem

Potential Republican 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump listens as he is introduced at the Tuscan Kitchen in Salem, New Hampshire, United States April 27, 2015. REUTERS/Lisa Hornak LISA HORNAK / Reuters

For Colorado Republican Senate candidate Greg Lopez, Donald Trump's comments about Mexicans are personal.

Before Lopez was mayor of Parker, Colo., and before he served as director of the Small Business Administration there, he migrated back and forth over the U.S.-Mexico border with his family. At the age of just five years old, Lopez would come to the States to pick onions, tomatoes and cotton, “what Mexican-Americans did” in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Lopez said he's not offended by Trump’s suggestion that Mexico is sending “rapists” and “killers” to the United States. Trump, he says, is just “uninformed.”

"What I see is there's an individual out there that has an uninformed opinion and he’s verbalizing it without really acknowledging the totality of the situation,” he told NBC in an interview.

Trump on Border: ‘People Are Just Flowing Through Like Water’ 2:27

But for Lopez, the personal is also political. He's running in a GOP primary in a state where Latino voters make up an estimated 14 percent of the electorate, and he says his bilingualism and unique personal story are key assets in his campaign. That may explain why, though Lopez said Trump's comments didn't offend him, he was quick to distance himself from the real-estate mogul.

"With my network and reputation here in Colorado, and people understanding what I stand for, I know they're not going to connect me to Trump," he said. "My network will be able to clearly articulate what I represent -- which is not close to what Donald Trump represents."

That's because what Donald Trump has come to represent over the past few weeks is not just his typical bombast and bluster but what some critics have decried as blatant racism. And there's growing concern among Republicans that Trump’s outsized profile could cause real damage, not only to the GOP’s 2016 hopes, but to the party's chances of defending a fragile majority in the Senate as well.

"There's a lot of concern that Trump's very overheated and unsolicitous rhetoric is really a gift for Democrats," said one Republican strategist advising a Senate candidate in a key battleground state, who was granted anonymity to speak frankly on the issue. "And it obscures, as Marco Rubio says, a lot of the real problems surrounding the immigration debate."

Democrats need to net only four or five seats to take back the upper chamber, depending on which party wins the White House, and they're eyeing Latino-heavy states like Florida and Illinois as prime pickup opportunities. They also see Latino voters as potentially creating a firewall of support for their candidates in two of the GOP's few opportunities to play offense: Nevada and Colorado. Latino voters make up anywhere from nearly 10 percent in Illinois, to 17 percent, in Florida, of the state’s eligible voters, and could prove decisive in a tough race.

"I certainly think that a Republican presidential candidate -- who is going to be in the debates -- making hateful and racist comments about large groups of voters is not going to do any favors for [Nevada Republican Senate candidate] Joe Heck or [Illinois Sen.] Mark Kirk or whoever the nominee is for the clown show in Florida on the GOP side," said Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Watch the Full, Unedited Donald Trump Interview 28:52

The National Republican Senatorial Committee didn’t respond to a request for comment. And Trump disagrees, doubling down on his comments in a Tuesday interview with NBC in which he insisted both that “the country of Mexico is killing us” and “I will win the Latino vote.”

But polling has shown rhetoric like Trump's does have a lasting effect, and could impact the party as a whole. A survey conducted during the 2013 immigration reform effort in the Senate tested a handful of statements made by senators opposed to the deal and found they negatively impacted the perception of their party among Latino voters, not just the senators themselves.

"The brand and the image of the party as a whole suffers when these sorts of comments come out," said Matt Barreto, co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions, which conducted the survey.

Barreto also said that the comments were likely to bleed downballot into races where the Latino vote is "going to be critical."

"The rate of turnout [among Latinos] often fluctuates and is very responsive to the political environment. If this immigration issue, the Trump issue, which has frankly also been suggested by other Republicans -- that will serve to really create a lot of anger and frustration in the Latino community," he said.

He likened it to the record-breaking Latino turnout during the last presidential race, when surveys showed Latino voters were driven to the polls both in favor of President Obama's pro-immigrant moves and what they saw as GOP nominee Mitt Romney's anti-immigrant rhetoric. The same could be true this cycle, Barreto said, if rhetoric like Trump’s continues to dominate the debate and the party.

But as Romney was in 2012, the GOP remains conflicted on the immigration issue, caught between warring impulses to appease its base and broaden its appeal.

On Wednesday, RNC chairman Reince Preibus asked Trump in a telephone conversation to “tone it down,” NBC News, the Washington Post and other news outlets reported – although Trump disputes part of that account.

Other Republicans have been quick to publicly distance themselves from Trump's rhetoric. Nevada Sen. Dean Heller dismissed the comments as “absolutely wrong” and said he gave Trump’s donations to his campaign to charity.

Rep. Joe Heck, the Republican hoping to take retiring Sen. Harry Reid’s seat and join Heller in the Senate, had similar criticism for the businessman.

"That's Donald Trump's opinion, and certainly he said it only in a way that only he can, which is to promote himself and generate controversy," Heck said. "You can't stereotype an entire ethnicity, and that's what he attempted to do."

But others have been more reticent. Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk didn’t respond to a request for comment on the issue; nor did Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Republican running for Florida Senate who has also received contributions from Trump.

Arizona Sen. John McCain is running for reelection in a state where Pew estimates 20 percent of the eligible voters are Latino. Asked about whether Trump's comments were appropriate or not, he cited the "close relationship" his home state has with Mexico, but didn't outright criticize Trump.

"I think that anybody in America is free to make the statements that they make, but I can tell you that people in my state, because of our knowledge and background and history would certainly not feel that way," McCain said.

Republicans are hopeful that the controversy will die down long before voters begin to tune in to the Senate races. But in the meantime, it’s up to the candidates to avoid getting tangled in an unnecessary controversy and risk alienating either conservatives or Latino voters.

That delicate dance was on display Wednesday when Todd Wilcox, a Florida businessman who launched his campaign for Senate just that day, weighed in on the comments in an interview with NBC. He said that he didn’t “necessarily agree with [Trump’s] generalization” that most immigrants are unsavory.

“I don't know where he gets his facts from,” he said.

But he added: “I kind of applaud him for talking about it. I don’t necessarily agree with the approach, but it’s certainly something we should be talking about.”

Wilcox also said, unless Trump’s comments “were much much more inflammatory, I wouldn’t turn his money away if he were to donate to my campaign,” citing the $5 million he expected to need to spend on TV ads alone to be competitive.

And unlike some others in his party, Wilcox doesn’t “necessarily think we have to attack the guy for his tone.”

“I don’t want to discourage anybody for getting up and speaking their mind,” Wilcox said.