Donald Trump had the chance during Wednesday’s debate to say he would accept the will of voters on Election Day.
“What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, OK?” Trump said when asked by moderator Chris Wallace whether he would commit to the principle of presidential losers conceding to the winner.
With that, Senate Republicans fighting for re-election had another Trump hurdle to climb.
“Republicans are in a free-for-all and distancing themselves from the nominee,” said Miami-based Democratic consultant Christian Ulvert. “He said he wouldn’t accept the election results. In a state like Florida, that’s a big problem with independent voters.”
On Thursday, Trump said at a rally that he would accept the results – if he wins.
Trump’s refusal to say whether he would accept election results during Wednesday night’s debate was unprecedented in American politics, and it puts Republican senators in competitive races in an undesirable position.
Even lukewarm Trump supporters like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have not defended the remarks.
“This election is not being rigged, and let me explain to you why it’s not being rigged in Florida and why I hope he stops saying that,” Rubio said during a debate earlier this week. “He should stop saying that. We have 67 counties in this state. Each of which conduct their own elections. I promise you there is not a 67‑county conspiracy to rig this election.”
Recent polls indicate the Senate has a strong chance to flip from Republican to Democratic control in November, and incumbent Republicans could be hurt by Trump’s remarks. In addition to two competitive open seats, 11 sitting Republicans face serious Democratic challenges for re-election.
Democrats must gain four seats to hold a Senate majority if Hillary Clinton is elected president, since a Vice President Tim Kaine would hold the tie-breaking vote.
Two sitting Republican senators, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, are unlikely to win their bids for re-election, meaning Democrats must pick up only two of seven seats rated as toss-ups by Real Clear Politics.
“I think it’s difficult to make a firm prediction,” said Douglas Heye, an anti-Trump Republican who worked for former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. “I’m from North Carolina, and I think she’s (Clinton) going to win there, but it depends by how much. A 1-point, 3-point or 5-point win looks very different.”
Republicans like North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr would benefit from independents and moderate Republicans casting anti-Trump presidential ballots and then voting red in Senate contests.
On Thursday afternoon, Burr said in a statement to McClatchy, “I’m not worried about America’s ability to conduct fair elections.”
Previously, Burr has said election systems nationwide are secure from hacking and interference.
“There is no ballot box connected to the internet,” he said.
Even Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who continues to outpace Democratic former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland in the polls despite a tight presidential race in the state, rejects the “rigged” talk.
“The sanctity of the ballot box is critical to our democracy,” Portman said in a statement provided to McClatchy. “I have full faith in Secretary of State Jon Husted and our county boards of elections to ensure the integrity of the election.”
Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt – who faces re-election against the person who certifies election results in the state – expressed concern about the electoral process.
“I have faith in the electoral system across the country, but it is still important to watch for the type of conduct that should not happen on Election Day,” Blunt said in a statement.
He also took a jab at his opponent, Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who is close to him in the polls, saying: “I don’t have faith in Missouri’s chief election official Jason Kander because of multiple ballot blunders, judicial rulings and court mandates that required two do-over elections in recent months.”
Kander responded: “Sen. Blunt’s baseless accusations were debunked by nearly every media outlet in the state months ago, and now he’s bringing them back up because he’s taking cues from his presidential candidate Donald Trump on how to handle a flailing campaign. As Republicans and Democrats in Missouri and across the country have said, our elections our fair and secure. This fear-mongering from Sen. Blunt is beneath the office and is bad for our democracy."
Blunt’s race has tightened in recent weeks, and recent polling gives Kander the edge even though Missouri is likely to favor Trump on Election Day.
Ulvert said Kander’s competitiveness in a red state was due to a combination of the Trump effect and savvy campaign moves like an eye-popping ad that featured Kander assembling a rifle.
“In the eleventh hour they (Republicans) are strapping on a life vest trying to save themselves, especially in Missouri, where the Democrat has defined himself as a Democrat and also as a representative for Missouri,” Ulvert said.
Only five of the 12 sitting Republican senators facing competitive re-election bids are endorsing Trump, and of them Blunt, Burr and Rubio are in the toughest races.
FiveThirtyEight, a polling aggregation site, gives Democrats a 71 percent chance of capturing a Senate majority.
Heye said it was crucial for Republican-leaning outside groups to pour money into competitive Senate races, particularly in North Carolina, where independent expenditures for Burr have lagged those for his opponent, former state Rep. Deborah Ross.
“With independent expenditures he’s being outspent,” Heye said. “It’s incumbent on the GOP to raise independent expenditures to match and pass that of the Democrats.”
The Trump effect manifests itself in different ways in different states, Heye said.
“Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., is talking a lot about heroin addiction because that’s a bigger problem in New Hampshire than other states,” Heye said. “Burr is talking about national security more than other folks.”
Clinton’s affiliated super PAC launched an ad Thursday linking Ayotte to Trump. After a debate gaffe Ayotte rescinded her endorsement of Trump.
“You saw Jeff Flake tweet out, you see legislators in Texas distancing themselves from Donald Trump because of how Clinton is doing,” Ulvert said.
“You’ve got the RNC chair trying to play cleanup on aisle one,” Ulvert said.
Lindsay Wise and Anna Douglas contributed to this article.
Sitting Senate Republicans facing re-election challenges
Polling average* against Democratic opponent
minus 7.0 percentage points
minus 5.3 percentage points
plus 1 percentage point
plus 1.7 percentage points
plus 1.8 percentage points
plus 2.8 percentage points
plus 4.8 percentage points
plus 12 percentage points
plus 15.8 percentage points
plus 15.7 percentage points
plus 16 percentage points
*Polling data according to Real Clear Politics averages.