Indiana Republican Chairman Jeff Cardwell announces the Indiana presidential roll call during the Republican National Convention last July in Cleveland as Trump Indiana chairman Rex Early looks on. (HPI photo by Randy Gentry)
Indiana Republican Chairman Jeff Cardwell announces the Indiana presidential roll call during the Republican National Convention last July in Cleveland as Trump Indiana chairman Rex Early looks on. (HPI photo by Randy Gentry)
WASHINGTON - Just as surprising as Donald Trump’s nomination is the fact that many Republicans are embracing certain Trump positions that are antithetical to the party’s core beliefs. Some in the GOP, like Indiana’s Governor and Vice Presidential nominee Mike Pence, are bending over backwards to support statements by Trump that are way outside the party’s mainstream of thought—positions they couldn’t possibly share.

The most egregious example is the way some Republicans have defended Trump’s unflinching admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a tyrant and thug who Trump seems to view as a leadership model. It was just four years ago that the GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, harshly criticized President Barrack Obama for not taking the Putin threat seriously enough. Now the Russian menace seems to have evaporated in the eyes of Trump’s surrogates.  

The hypocrisy on this is palpable. Undoubtedly, Republicans would have characterized Obama as traitorous had he lavished similar praise on the Russian leader as Trump has on Putin.

Since Hillary Clinton’s post-convention bounce that stretched her lead to close to double digits, there has been a slow erosion of support for her. The principle reason for the tightening of the race is that Republicans have been coming home to support Trump. Clinton enjoys support by over 90% of Democrats, while Trump’s Republican support had been in the high 70s%, low 80% range. Now, according to the most recent polls, Trump is doing better with Republican voters than he was six weeks ago.

However, Trump’s cozying up to Putin is likely to drive a deeper wedge within the party. The Bush crowd abandoned Trump long ago after he humiliated Jeb during the primaries. Other party faithful swore him off after he launched a personal, racially tinged attack against a Hoosier born Hispanic federal judge who is hearing a Trump University lawsuit. Still more jumped off the bandwagon when Trump went after Gold Star parents who spoke at the Democratic National Convention.  Nonetheless, as Trump has become more focused the past couple of weeks, wayward Republicans have been returning to the fold.

But Trump’s most recent incident of heaping praise on Putin during Wednesday’s Commander-in-Chief forum following by his interview with Larry King on the English speaking Russian TV has Republicans again disavowing their standard bearer’s remarks. House Speaker Paul Ryan and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham were both quick to distance themselves. “Other than destroying every instrument of democracy in his own country, having opposition people killed, dismembering neighbors through military force, and being the benefactor of the butcher of Damascus, he’s a good guy,” cracked Graham.

The degree to which Republicans hold their noses and support the Trump candidacy will have enormous impact not just on the presidential race, but on the down ballot races as well, including in Indiana. A WTHR/Howey Politics Indiana poll released Friday shows Trump leading Clinton in Indiana by 7 points, 43% to 36%, with Gary Johnson at 11%. Trump is garnering the support of 94% of Republican men and 84% of Republican women while Clinton is getting 89% of both Democratic men and women.

In the September 6-8 survey, Trump is also crushing Clinton among Independent men, 42%-18%, while nosing ahead of her with independent women 37% to 32%. Hoosier down ballot Democrats stand a much better chance of winning if Trump renews his tendency to alienate Republican and independent women away from him, reducing the overall margin of victory in Indiana to below 5%.

The U.S. Senate race provides a clearer example of what happens when Republicans come home. In a July 12-14 Garin-Hart-Yang poll conducted shortly after former Senator Evan Bayh entered the race, fully 20% of Republicans were supporting the Democrat over Congressman Todd Young. In the WTHR/Howey poll, Bayh’s support among both Republican men and women is down to 11% while his lead over Young is just 44% to 40%. His overall favorable rating is just 48%, though his unfavorable rating remains low at 28%.

The top of the ticket could have even more impact on the competitive 9th District congressional race between Democrat Shelli Yoder and Republican Trey Hollingsworth. A poll conducted shortly after the May 2nd primary showed Yoder and Hollingsworth tied at 41%. The Cook partisan rating is plus 9% Republican. However, Yoder is an experienced, attractive candidate running against a flawed out-of-stater, who moved to Indiana from Tennessee to buy the House seat. A big Trump win combined with strong 9th district numbers by Young could present problems for Yoder, though not insurmountable. In any event, as pointed out in an analysis in Politico, recent internal GOP polling confirms that the race between Yoder and Hollingsworth is currently a tossup.

I would offer a word of caution about jumping to conclusions about the races tested in WTHR/Howey poll. The sample indicates that Hoosier conservatives outnumber liberals almost two and a half to one (48%--20%) whereas that ratio in past presidential election years has been closer to 2-to-1 (40%--20%). If the Indiana electorate is more like the conservative/liberal ratio of past presidential election years, then Bayh’s lead is more accurately in the low double digits, though considerably tighter that the 21% lead in the Garin-Hart-Yang poll conducted in July.

All eyes are currently on the upcoming presidential debates. A CNN/ORC poll completed just before Wednesday’s Commander-in-Chief forum indicated that 51% of voters believe Trump’s approach to foreign policy would put the country at risk. Trump is also facing increased scrutiny over his foundation’s contribution to a Super PAC supporting the Florida attorney general’s re-election campaign before her office dropped its case against Trump University.  

Trump will need to give satisfactory answers to these and other questions or his standing in the polls could drop to post-convention levels. Trump cannot win if a majority of voters believe he would put the country at risk. But if Hoosier Republicans, especially GOP women, remain loyal to the party in spite of Donald Trump’s affinity for Putin, his controversial immigration proposals, and other outlandish ideas and statements, Hoosier Democrats might miss out what began as a promising year.

Chris Sautter is a Washington-based Democratic political consultant with long ties to the Hoosier state.