A wave of apprehension and anguish swept the Republican Party on Thursday, with many GOP leaders alarmed by Donald Trump’s refusal to accept the outcome of the election and concluding that it is probably too late to salvage his flailing presidential campaign. As the Republican nominee reeled from a turbulent performance in the final debate here in Las Vegas, his party’s embattled senators and House members scrambled to protect their seats and preserve the GOP’s congressional majorities against what Republicans privately acknowledge could be a landslide victory for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. With 19 days until the election, the Republican Party is in a state of historic turmoil, encapsulated by Trump’s extraordinary debate declaration that he would leave the nation in “suspense” about whether he would recognize the results from an election he has claimed will be “rigged” or even “stolen.”
The immediate responses from GOP officials were divergent and vague, with no clear strategy on how to handle Trump’s threat. The candidate was defiant and would not back away from his position, telling a roaring crowd Thursday in Ohio that he would accept the results “if I win” — and reserving his right to legally challenge the results should he fall short.
For seasoned Republicans who have watched Trump warily as a general-election candidate, the aftermath of Wednesday’s debate brought a feeling of finality.
“The campaign is over,” said Steve Schmidt, a Trump critic and former senior strategist on George W. Bush’s and John McCain’s presidential campaigns. Calling a refusal to accept the election results “disqualifying,” Schmidt added: “The question is, how close will Clinton get to 400 electoral votes? She’ll be north of 350, and she’s trending towards 400 — and the trend line is taking place in very red states like Georgia, Texas and Arizona.”