Saturday was the worst day in Matt Borges’ career in politics.
The Ohio GOP chairman says he did three dozen interviews, condemning Donald Trump’s 2005 comments about his behavior toward women, but not quite pulling his support.
That was his party’s nominee who had said those things. His party. The one whose national chairmanship Borges is expected to seek this fall. The one whose true ideals he believes in. The one that had a shot at defeating Democrat Hillary Clinton and now is stuck with – this.
At home on Sunday, as he joins his wife on an oversize sectional to watch the debate, the peace of mind about Trump is no better. Kate Borges started backing Republican politicians when she married Matt in 2010, having been sold on the notion that “Republicans stay out of your business.” But she had never backed Trump. Last week, she made headlines when Matt acknowledged she wouldn’t let him put a Trump sign in their yard.
Still, she doesn’t trust Democrat Hillary Clinton. And she believes in the kind of Republicans she has seen in Ohio.
As state party chairman, Matt Borges is trying to figure out how to do the right thing, personally, morally. Kate Borges is trying to figure out the right way to vote.
Right at the debate's start, the latest issue – the breaking point for some Republicans – comes up. Did Trump kiss women and grab their genitals without consent?
Kate leans forward, her mouth tight, her eyes wide. “It’s locker room talk,” Trump insists. A hint of a wry smile forms. “No, I have not” acted in the way described, Trump says. Kate chuckles ruefully.
One of Matt and Kate’s dogs vomits.
“Trump was so bad, he made the dog throw up,” Kate calls, dashing for the paper towels.
You can’t make this stuff up.
It’s not like Kate found the latest Trump comments surprising. She’s actually surprised people have reacted with so much shock and outrage. When she first heard the comments, she thought: “OK, one more thing that I think is terrible that no one else is going to care about.”
She met Trump once, at a fundraiser with Matt. He didn’t smell. (She expected him to reek of hair-styling products.) He complimented her looks. He fawned over Matt all night long. He told one of the attendees he had a great reputation; Matt and Kate knew Trump had never heard of the guy.
He didn’t win her over.
Lucy, Kate and Matt’s 5-year-old daughter, is autistic. Trump has mocked people with disabilities.
“When he was making fun of the reporter, that kind of, to me, was – wha-chaaw! – the ax,” Kate says. After that, “I don’t know what he could say. I’ll listen … but, jeez almighty, you can only change your spots so much, right? …
“I don’t think he respects women. I don’t think he respects anybody.”
Trump is lashing out at Clinton now, saying she attacked women who accused Bill Clinton of “abusive” behavior. Kate buries her head in her hands.
Matt’s face has alternated between muted disgust and intense focus. Strategically, he knows Trump is having a better debate than he had two weeks ago. Trump is finally bringing up topics to use against Clinton, not just answering the questions posed. He’s attacking the moderators, who are part of the “bias” Matt says Republicans have to fight. And Clinton is merely answering the questions. At times, she seems ruffled, Kate and Matt agree.
Trump focuses on Clinton’s emails and her server. Matt leans back on the couch, scrolling through text messages from other GOP state chairpersons. Many are rooting for Trump to pull it together. “Stay on this, DJT. Don’t leave it. Say nothing else but emails,” one person texts.
“Implosion,” someone else says.
After the first exchange about Trump’s 2005 remarks, “he does seem to kinda have come to life here. In a good way,” Matt says. “This is the Donald Trump that beat us.”
By “us,” of course, Matt means the campaign of his friend and ally John Kasich, the Ohio governor who lost to Trump in the GOP presidential primary. Kasich then refused to endorse Trump and released an I-told-you-so statement when the 2005 tape was unearthed.
Matt is back on his phone. “Do you think he’s helping himself?” texts Beth Hansen, who managed John Kasich’s presidential campaign.
“Yes,” Matt responds.
And here’s where it gets tougher. Matt is starting to think Trump is winning the debate. He thinks Clinton is performing terribly.
A lot of Republicans were waiting to make a decision on Trump until after the debate. This is a debate, Matt notes, that will rally Trump’s base. But it won’t win over the Kates of the world. “I still think it’s on life support,” Matt says.
So what to do? Matt has never been a huge Trump fan. But he wants Hillary Clinton to lose.
“I’m never ever, ever, ever going to say that I’m for Hillary. It’s just not going to happen,” Matt says. Even though he’s having “obvious misgivings,” he says, “I don’t want her to win. And we should have been able to win this year. We should have been able to beat her.”
So if Trump has a zero percent chance of beating Clinton, and someone else has a 1 percent chance? Matt wants that someone else.
But it’s not that easy.
For the GOP to replace Trump, he’d have to be willing to withdraw. He has vowed to keep fighting, but Matt has seen him listen to criticism when he’s down in the polls. He might step down, Matt says, “if it looks like he’s going to lose.” But will the rest of the GOP support that? The texts Matt has gotten from state chairpersons are leaning in Trump’s favor.
“Why aren’t we standing with Donald Trump?” some ask.
The public answer from the Republican National Committee has been silence.
“Right now, I think there needs to be more guidance” publicly, Matt says. “I don’t think anyone knows what’s going on.”
Even if the RNC set a direction, there are his state committee members to consider. Matt serves at their pleasure. He hasn’t heard much support for Trump from them this weekend, but he has heard some. In any case, he knows it’s up to him. He’s their leader.
The debate is ending. Trump uses his tell-it-like-it-is persona refreshingly: to compliment Clinton for being a fighter.
“That Donald Trump is so much more appealing," Matt says. He would actually be able to win over new voters. But it’s not the Trump who is running for president.
Say GOP voters continue to back Trump, despite behavior party leaders view as despicable. Might the party leaders – might Matt – need to set an example? Might they need to say they don’t support this kind of a man, even if the voters do?
Maybe, Matt says.
“This is the Boomer generation going out with a whimper,” Borges says of GOP voters’ support for Trump. “They’ve now held on to it with a death grip for the last 25 years. … If we’re going to advance the party forward, we need a forward-thinking vision. And a lot of this ugliness and divisiveness, from the worst presidential campaign that I’ve ever seen, that’s not going to help us grow the party.”
It’s 11:15, and it hits Matt and Kate at the same time. Lucy is asleep upstairs.
At the end of the day, Kate and Matt are both undecided voters, trying to decide how to cast a vote they can stand by when Lucy is old enough to understand.
“That’s when my stomach starts doing this again,” Kate says, twisting her hands. “Is it really: if you don’t vote for Donald, then it’s a vote for Hillary? … It doesn’t seem like there’s a good option. There has to be an option that, in 10 years, when I look at Lucy in the face, I feel glad.”
“That’s what it is, too,” Matt chimes in. “I’ve got to think about what I want to remember having done, like you said, 10 years from now.”
For Matt, it’s more than just whether to cast a vote for Trump. Kate has no problem leaving a spot blank – she says she didn’t even vote until she married Matt. As a Republican who has devoted his life to the electoral process, for Matt, “the not voting part is something I may regret.
“And I’m not voting for Gary Legalize-Heroin Johnson or Jill I-Landed-in-Cincinnati-Even-Though-My-Event-Was-In-Bexley Stein. Or Hillary Clinton. I’m not voting for Hillary Clinton. She’s anathema to everything I’ve ever thought about, believed, fought for, worked on over the past 20 years.
“That really only leaves me with one choice," he says. "And I just don’t know right now.”