Leading Republicans are speculating that Donald Trump’s 2024 election bid could doom the party, after the former president was found “civily liable” for sexual abuse.

The question, which would be straightforward in most other political contexts, is the extent to which the recent abuse verdict will hinder Trump’s attempt to win a second term as president – and his party’s chances of wresting control of the White House from the Democrats.

“I think he would sink,” said Don Bacon, a Republican representative from Nebraska. “He would not win the White House. He would probably cause us to lose the House and the Senate. I would see very dark clouds on the horizon if he is the nominee.”

Republican soul-searching follows on from the decision by a Manhattan jury on Tuesday which found that Trump had sexually abused and defamed E Jean Carroll, an author, in a New York department store in the 1990s.

Trump was ordered to pay $5m in damages – $3m for defamation for denying the claims and $2m for the injuries suffered from the assault itself. The jury did not find him liable on the charge of rape, which Carroll had claimed. Trump vehemently denies all charges. 

North Dakota Senator Kevin Cramer said: “[The verdict] and several other things cause me to question whether he’d be the best nominee for the party.”

The “sex abuser” label is the latest of Trump’s legal headaches, after a criminal indictment last month, and the prospect of more to come. 

But is Trump really toast?

One month before the 2016 US election, when the notorious Access Hollywood clip surfaced – in which Trump described his seduction technique in crude detail – pundits and politicians across the political spectrum thought the real estate mogul’s campaign was finished. Yet Trump shrugged off his comments as locker-room banter, many would-be critics kept their heads down, and the rest is history.

This time, the attack line from Team Trump is that he could never have been given a fair trial in a New York court, and the case was politically motivated.

Many are choosing to believe as much. The fact it was a meeting with George Conway, the anti-Trump lawyer and activist, that prompted Carroll to seek damages is enough for Trump’s diehard supporters to see the case as yet another establishment stitch-up.

This verdict won’t dent Trump’s popularity among the faithful. But it could well make wooing swing voters a lot more difficult. As John Cornyn, a Republican senator in Texas put it: “I don’t think he can get elected. You can’t win a general election with just your base.”

And yet, to the horror of more moderate Republicans, the prospect of Trump becoming the party’s nominee appears undimmed. Alyssa Farah, Trump’s former White House director of strategic communications turned vociferous critic, said: “We cannot afford to put this man up as Republicans if we actually want to win because women will run from voting for him.”

Opinion polling in the coming days will reveal the extent to which Trump is in trouble with the wider electorate were he to secure the Republican nomination. 

But the initial swings in the betting markets don’t bode well for the former president. His odds of winning the US election in 2024 fell from 29% to 23% after the abuse verdict was announced. Trump, a political gambler, won’t like the look of that one bit. 

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