The presidential candidacy of Donald Trump has raised a lot of unexpected questions. Among the strangest: "Is there a difference between a politician saying he or she will vote for Trump and actually endorsing him?"
The distinction isn't merely academic. In recent days, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, told CNN that while Trump "has my vote, he doesn’t have my endorsement." And closer to home, Republican Cory Gardner said during an interview with the Pueblo Chieftain last Friday that "I have not endorsed him. My position has been I wanted to see some answers to some questions that I have before I do that." But later that day, speaking at a GOP fundraiser in El Paso County, Gardner said, "I’m voting Republican up and down the ticket. A Republican president will make a difference, even a Republican president named Donald Trump." After this last comment was reported, Gardner released a statement that pledged support for "the entire Republican ticket in November" without mentioning Trump's name.
Gardner's campaign didn't respond to an interview request on this topic, and neither did the team backing Republican congressman Mike Coffman, who took the opposite tack, releasing a TV commercial in which the candidate says of Trump, "I don't care for him much." The clip is on view below.
But veteran Colorado-based Republican strategist Dick Wadhams isn't afraid to wade into this subject matter, even though he acknowledges how weird it is.
"We are certainly in terrain we've never seen before with this Trump candidacy," Wadhams says.
In his view, "I don't think there's really any difference between endorsing and saying you're going to vote for somebody. But that doesn't mean you have to spend any time running around the state campaigning for the candidate, either. So there's no difference, but there are differences in degrees of intensity. And I think Senator Gardner did what he had to do as a Republican senator in saying he would vote for the Republican nominee for president."
At the same time, Wadhams believes it's fine if Gardner's commitment to Trump stops right there: "I don't think he has to go any further than that — and I don't think he'll suffer one way or another after the election. Trump's candidacy is unique in and of itself, so I don't think there are any long-term repercussions for Cory either way."
If that's the case, why did Gardner bother to back The Donald at all, particularly given his past endorsements of Marco Rubio and Trump nemesis Ted Cruz?
"I assume the local Trump campaign in Colorado is trying to get Republican elected officials on board, especially after what the Republican delegation from Colorado did in Cleveland," Wadhams replies. "And I'm sure the Republican National Committee still has a responsibility to support the nominee. But I doubt the pressure has been that heavy. When it really gets down to it, Trump's problems go much deeper than the Republican base. There's a new poll that shows he's down by ten points to Hillary Clinton in Colorado, and he's vastly trailing her among women and educated white voters. So the Republican base is the least of his problems."
As for Coffman, "he has a different challenge," Wadhams says. "The Sixth Congressional District," which Coffman represents, "is so diverse and so competitive. And because of the large Hispanic population there, and the presence of other ethnic groups that Coffman has worked so hard to build bridges to and be involved with, he probably needed to do what he did in the ad. He's a strong incumbent, but he's running against a pretty strong candidate" — Democrat Morgan Carroll. "I don't think she was going to be able to hang with him anyway, but when we look back, we'll have a better idea if this gave him the ability to win."
Wadhams predicts Third District Republican Congressman Scott Tipton will triumph, too, in part because he doesn't see a Clinton victory supplying the kind of coattails for local and state candidates as did President Barack Obama in 2008.
Does that mean he gives Trump little chance for a comeback in Colorado or the country as a whole? Pretty much.
"Trump deserves a lot of credit in the primaries for attracting blue-collar voters who traditionally voted Democrat or didn't vote at all," he says. "And there was a glimmer of hope at one point that he might put some Midwestern states in play — and he still thinks he can. But after the convention, he took another shot at Ted Cruz, and a few days later, he goes after the parents of the slain soldier in Iraq. And then if you look at what he did the following week, and the week after that, and the week after that, well, he squandered an opportunity that looked like it might have been there. I'm not sure he was ever going to be competitive in Colorado because of the comments he made about [Fox News anchor] Megyn Kelly and the disabled New York Times reporter [Serge F. Kovaleski] and what he's said about Mexicans — I think that cuts so deep in Colorado that even before the convention, he'd already alienated those swing voters who carry Colorado in statewide races."
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Even so, a Trump defeat could wind up being a positive for both Gardner and Coffman, if only because they will no longer have to worry about whether they endorsed him or not. Here's a look at the aforementioned Coffman ad, in which he has negative things to say about both Trump and Clinton.