Vulnerable Senate Republicans are deploying an array of tactics to stanch the down-ballot bleeding from Donald Trump’s caught-on-tape remarks about women, from vocal condemnation to pleas to forgive the real estate mogul and focus on Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire didn’t wait for the dust to settle, revoking her support for the businessman within 24 hours of the release of a 2005 tape in which Mr. Trump boasted about his attempts to seduce women and ability to get away with anything — including grabbing their private parts.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona withdrew his Trump endorsement two days later, though he swiftly turned the issue into an attack on his Democratic opponent, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, and her party’s presidential nominee.
“I wonder, since I have renounced my support, when congresswoman Kirkpatrick is going to renounce her support for Hillary Clinton, who has continuously lied,” he said Monday in the race’s sole debate.
While Mr. McCain is a well-known senator with a double-digit lead, other incumbents are walking fine lines after the video leak, which triggered a virtual civil war within the Republican Party.
Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who is locked in a tight race against former state lawmaker Deborah Ross, can ill afford to lose Mr. Trump’s ardent supporters on Election Day. He said that while the mogul’s words are indefensible, he doesn’t plan to walk away from the presidential nominee.
“I don’t think this is something that we dwell on after somebody has asked for forgiveness,” he told The News & Observer newspaper in Raleigh.
Mr. Trump’s personal feuds and strident views on immigration and trade have riled Republican leaders for months, though his lewd “hot mic” remarks from an “Access Hollywood” taping presented peril for Senate Republicans clinging to a 54-46 majority against a tough electoral map.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, has taken a low-key approach by refusing to discuss the presidential race publicly, even after House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, announced that he would no longer defend Mr. Trump or campaign with him.
Yet nearly three-quarters of Republicans said party leaders should continue to back Mr. Trump, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll taken in the immediate aftermath of the leaked tape, and some have taken stances that would appear contradictory.
Some Republicans, including Sens. John Thune of South Dakota and Deb Fischer of Nebraska, appeared to take contradictory stances, saying they still plan to vote for Mr. Trump even after they called for his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, to take his place.
Mr. Thune is up for re-election in a noncompetitive race, and Ms. Fischer doesn’t face the voters until 2018.
While each Republican senator forges his or her own path — stick with Mr. Trump or write in someone else — no one is telling voters what to do.
“That would really be a recipe for disaster, to say, ‘Don’t vote against Trump,’” said Republican Party strategist Ford O’Connell, who argued that less than 10 percent of battleground-state voters would reject Mr. Trump but support a Republican senator down the ballot. “Rank-and-file voters aren’t saying, ‘Let’s save the Senate’ like it’s the Alamo.”
Leading in the polls, Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Marco Rubio of Florida have maintained a quiet, if cordial, distance from Mr. Trump that has paid off so far.
Mr. Portman said Saturday that he could no longer support Mr. Trump, though he already was pulling away from former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland in his own race.
Mr. Rubio didn’t go that far, as he tries to stiff-arm Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Democrat who jumped into the race before Mr. Rubio faltered at the presidential level and sought re-election.
In a statement, Mr. Rubio tried to turn the spotlight back to the Democratic presidential nominee, saying he wishes the U.S. had “better choices for president” but he doesn’t want Mrs. Clinton to take the White House.
“And therefore, my position has not changed,” he said.
In Pennsylvania, Democratic challenger Katie McGinty is pressuring Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, a Republican trying to avoid downward pressure from Mr. Trump, to divulge whether he plans to vote for his party’s presidential nominee.
Though in this crazy election cycle, Mr. O’Connell said, silence is “probably the best way to go.”