Many GOP candidates and elected officials across the country are rushing away from Donald Trump – but not the Republicans running for the U.S. Senate seat in Louisiana.
Most of the state’s five Republican representatives and two U.S. senators won’t directly address whether they continue to support Trump.
But the state’s four major Republican candidates – including two congressmen – on Monday reaffirmed their support for the party’s presidential nominee, following Friday’s release of an audiotape where he disparaged women and bragged about getting away with sexual assault– comments that provoked widespread condemnation.
All four major Republican Senate candidates repudiated Trump’s comments, but three of them ducked calls from The Advocate, willing only to release a written statement.
Only Rob Maness, a hard-right conservative from St. Tammany Parish, would discuss the billionaire businessman.
“I came out immediately and said I support Trump,” Maness said in an interview. “He’s the only one who can get the country out of the hands of the elitists in Washington.”
Maness made his comments on the same day that U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan told Republican lawmakers that he would no longer defend Trump and urged them to take their own position on his candidacy.
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Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told party members Monday afternoon that "nothing has changed" in their support of Trump. The Louisiana Republican Party then announced that Lafayette businessman Tim Breaux, a chief ally of Trump's, would become the party's deputy chairman.
But Trump’s comments have discomfited the state’s top Republican elected officials as well as the Senate candidates.
U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, the majority whip from Jefferson, asked Trump to apologize Friday. After not commenting over the weekend, his office on Tuesday said Scalise continues to support Trump. But, U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, of Baton Rouge; and Sen. David Vitter, of Metarie, have not responded to a dozen calls, emails and text messages since Saturday.
U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge, condemned Trump’s comments in tweets. But he would not directly say if he joined elected Republicans elsewhere in asking Trump to withdraw, and he wouldn’t say whether he still plans to vote for the GOP presidential candidate.
Only U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, a Republican from northeast Louisiana, responded to a request for comment, saying on Saturday: “Donald Trump's comments are offensive and indefensible. I would never want either of my daughters or my granddaughters spoken about or treated in that way. … Hillary Clinton has proven over her 30-year political career of destructive policies and poor judgment that she is unfit for the White House. She cannot be allowed to win the presidency, so Mr. Trump should consider whether he needs to step aside and allow Gov. Pence to lead our party to victory in November for the good of the country.”
Trump’s comments have put the Republican candidates in a particularly difficult position four weeks before the Senate jungle primary on Nov. 8, the same day that Trump is expected to carry Louisiana. Reaffirming their support for Trump would likely alienate conservative Democrats and independents. Panning him would anger his die-hard supporters on the far right.
Maness chided state Treasurer John Kennedy, U.S. Rep. John Fleming and U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany for hiding behind their written statements.
“They’re acting like a bunch of political weak cowards,” said Maness, a retired Air Force colonel.
Kennedy didn’t return a phone call or respond to an interview request to his campaign.
“Can’t grant an interview now,” Jack Pandol, Boustany’s spokesman, said in an email.
“Dr. Fleming is in editorial board meetings this afternoon,” Matt Beynon, his spokesman, said in an email.
The Senate candidates’ scarcity Monday doesn’t surprise Peter Brown, a former political reporter who is now the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. “Clearly, they think it’s to their advantage to get involved as little as possible in this controversy,” Brown said.
Mac Stipanovich, a Republican political strategist in Florida who is no fan of Trump, questioned this approach.
“It’s not exactly a profile in courage,” Stipanovich said. “Someone who would take that route is not someone who would make the hard decisions in Washington.”
Maness continued to support Trump even as he condemned the comments.
“I’d punch him in the mouth if he said that about my wife or my daughter,” Maness said and then referred to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, and her husband, former President Bill Clinton. “If we’re going to talk about that, let’s talk about the country’s most famous sexual predator and his enabler.”
The other three major Republicans would not agree to interview requests.
“I strongly condemn these reprehensible comments,” Boustany, who represents southwest Louisiana, said in a statement Friday night. “There is no situation where derogatory and chauvinistic language characterizing women in this way is acceptable.”
Pandol, Boustany’s spokesman, reaffirmed Monday that the congressman plans to vote for Trump.
Fleming and Kennedy took much longer than Boustany to respond to the controversy surrounding Trump.
“It is without question that Mr. Trump's comments were reprehensible, and I condemn them wholly,” Fleming, who represents northwest Louisiana, said in a statement Monday. “But the choice for voters this November is a decision between Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton, who instituted the disastrous Obama foreign policy. With that choice, I will be voting for Mr. Trump.”
"I don't approve of his language or what he said,” Kennedy said in a statement. “I'm glad he apologized. I'm voting for Trump and Pence."
David Duke, a Republican who will not answer questions from The Advocate, said through a spokesman that he continues to back Trump.
The two major Democratic candidates for the seat that Sen. David Vitter is vacating have condemned Trump.
“I stand with leaders of both major parties across the country who today rejected not only Trump's lifetime of disrespect for women, but also his recently exposed endorsement of violence against them,” Foster Campbell, a member of the Public Service Commission from Bossier Parish, said in a statement Friday night.
Campbell has not stated specifically that he is voting for Hillary Clinton.
“He has said at several events he is supporting the Democratic nominee for president,” said Mary-Patricia Wray, Campbell’s spokeswoman, declining to be more specific.
“Donald Trump's recently discovered comments highlight not only his lurid personal history, but sadly also the lack of respect for women in our culture,” Caroline Fayard, an attorney in New Orleans, said in a statement issued Saturday afternoon. “These disgusting and hurtful comments from a grown man who has spent much of his life trading on his wealth and influence as a means to exert power over others – particularly women – further underscore Mr. Trump's unfitness for office.”
Asked why Fayard responded 15 hours after Campbell, Fayard spokesman Beau Tidwell said, “It was just a matter of getting Caroline together with the campaign staff and determining how we would word the response. We weren’t trying to race any other candidates to get out there.”
Elizabeth Crisp of The Advocate Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.