Vulnerable GOP senators are flailing wildly trying to keep their party leadership happy, appeal to voters, and simultaneously deal with a wildly unpopular front-runner. 


Here’s how Senators Ayotte, Johnson, Portman, Kirk, Toomey, Burr, and McCain  — some of the most vulnerable senators this cycle —  are trying to navigate their Trump dilemma.

New Hampshire:

Kelly Ayotte dodges until interviewer “gives up.”

Ayotte has been dancing around this issue for months, telling New Hampshire Public Radio in December that she will “support the Republican nominee,” even if it’s Donald Trump, while calling his plan to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the country “inconsistent with the First Amendment.”

More recently, when an interviewer valiantly tried to get Ayotte to weigh in on Trump and whether he is more qualified than Hillary, she thrice avoided answering, leading the exhausted interviewer to say, “alright, I give up.”

Wisconsin:

Ron Johnson says “I’m saying what I’m saying” on Trump.

Well that clears it up. Johnson had been one of the few vulnerable senators to express open support for Trump, telling CNN last week that he thinks Trump could be a boon for his re-election prospects and that he would even stump with the front-runner as “the Ronald and the Donald.”


But by Sunday Johnson had changed his tune… sort of. Telling Meet The Press host Chuck Todd that the three and a half months left until the Republican convention “is a lifetime in politics,” Johnson announced his intention to wait and see who the delegates pick, and praised the radio hosts in his state for asking tough questions of the presidential candidates — likely referring to Wisconsin Radio Host Charlie Sykes asking Trump to “remember, we’re not on a playground, we’re running for President of the United States.”

Pressed by Todd to explain how that was “not an anti-Trump sentiment,” Johnson replied “because I’m saying what I’m saying,” and added how much he supported the Romney/Ryan ticket in 2012, and that he was not going to support a Democrat.


Ohio:

Rob Portman would support Trump as the nominee unless “something crazy happens.”

Portman has said that while he has “a lot of disagreements” with Trump, he does “intend to support the Republican nominee, unless something crazy happens.”

But it’s clear the prospect of a Trump nomination makes him nervous. He’s supporting Kasich, and has said of the prospect of an open convention: “If [Trump] doesn’t have the majority going in, then I think the delegates ought to have the ability to do what the rules provide, which is during the second ballot, to be free to choose who they think the right person is.”

Illinois:

Mark Kirk thinks Trump should “shut up,” but he’ll support him if nominated.

Last July, shortly after Trump’s now-infamous bigoted comments about Mexicans, Kirk said in an interview he’d tell Trump to “shut up.” But months later, after scores of additional examples of extreme rhetoric from Trump, and just hours before chaos broke out at a postponed Donald Trump rally in Chicago, Kirk said he would support Trump’s candidacy  if he turns out to be the Republican nominee.

It’s no wonder he doesn’t want to appear too close to Trump. According to former Illinois state Republican chairman Pat Brady, “If [Trump is] our nominee, the repercussions of that in this state would be devastating.”

Pennsylvania:

Pat Toomey would support Trump, but he doesn’t like to talk about it.

When asked if he would support Donald Trump, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), who previously endorsed Marco Rubio, said, “I have every intention of supporting the Republican nominee.” But the Pennsylvania Republican doesn’t really go around the Keystone state boasting about it. That’s because “with Trump at the top of the general election ticket, Pennsylvania’s Senate seat is predicted to switch from Republican to Democrat.”

North Carolina:

Richard Burr has swung between praising Trump’s “tremendous job” to being “hopeful” he can support the nominee.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) initially rode the Trump wave, saying Trump has done a “tremendous job,” but now the North Carolina Republican is having second thoughts.

Just like most of the Republican senators running for re-election, Burr placates Trump’s base by saying he’d support whomever the GOP nominee is. But at the same time, Burr understands that jumping on the Trump bandwagon too obviously won’t do him any favors in November, particularly seeing that polls show North Carolina voters are less likely to vote for Burr if he supports Trump.

Burr has now dialed things back a bit, saying “I’ve always said I was going to support the nominee, I’m hopeful I’ll be able to support the nominee.” He’s also called Trump’s temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. a “huge mistake”

According to Roll Call, Burr’s campaign “is busy now identifying voters who would support the second-term senator but neither of the other two Republicans” — Trump, and controversial North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, who recently signed an unpopular anti-LGBT rights bill into law.

Arizona:

John McCain has “concerns” about Trump, but will support him even after POW attack.

Trump has questioned whether John McCain, who was repeatedly tortured throughout the five years he spent in a North Vietnamese prison, was a war hero. He threatened the Arizona Republican after finding out that McCain agreed with Mitt Romney’s scathing attacks on Trump’s candidacy. McCain said he shares Romney’s “concerns,” and hopes voters “think long and hard” about their support. Yet, McCain, who is facing a primary challenge from his right flank, has said he’d fall in line should Trump become the GOP nominee.

That support of Trump could backfire, as McCain “has been dogged by questions from reporters about Trump.” His Democratic opponent, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, released a “biting online ad splicing McCain’s continued expressions of support with Trump’s most controversial remarks.”

“I’m amazed that McCain has been as kind to Trump,” said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “I know he has to get through his primary — he doesn’t want to upset the Trump people before the primary — but the day that’s over he had better start differentiating himself from Trump.”

McCain and a lot of other Republicans.

[Benjamin Armbruster contributed to this article.]

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)