Drive to Take Down Trump: Can It Work?
Winter is coming. And with it, the Republican Party could see a third season of its presidential primary dominated by Donald Trump.
The collective wisdom after the Paris terrorist attacks—that voters would gravitate toward a battle-tested, policy-minded candidate with experience to lead in such turbulent times —has yet to take hold. In fact, Trump not only continues to top polls, but a new survey of Iowa voters shows he is considered the best candidate to handle terrorism.
Meanwhile, his rhetoric has become even more heated—and controversial. Talk of a national registry for Muslims in America, surveillance of mosques and his insistence, contrary to evidence, that Muslim Americans cheered 9/11, among other things, have dominated the headlines, causing rivals to take time from their own campaigns to respond when they would rather draw contrasts with President Obama and Hillary Clinton over foreign policy and national security.
The Republican National Committee has yet to comment on the most recent Trump remarks—which have elicited comparisons to fascism by some—even as the frontrunner’s durability threatens GOP efforts to be more inclusive following the 2012 election.
“The RNC remains neutral in the primary and leaves it up Republican voters to decide our nominee,” said chief strategist Sean Spicer.
If recent history is a guide, any intervention or strike by the establishment against Teflon-like Trump would only fuel his supporters.
Instead, outside groups are rallying against Trump, hoping an effort with actual money behind it, instead of just speeches or statements, will take down the giant—or, if nothing else, diminish his support.
The question, however, remains: Will it work?
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Republican strategist Liz Mair is launching Trump Card LLC, a group leading a “guerilla campaign” against the businessman that doesn’t have to disclose donors under Federal Election Commission rules. The group plans to sponsor unconventional television and radio ad buys, along with Web ads and opposition research. The group is soliciting donations from all sources, including other campaigns interested in seeing Trump fall.
And New Day for America, a super PAC supporting John Kasich, is preparing to spend at least $2.5 million in anti-Trump messaging. The group launched an ad in New Hampshire painting Trump and Ben Carson as unfit for the role of commander-in-chief. The group says its aim, in addition to propping up Kasich, will be to explain to voters how bad the impact of Trump’s policies would be—from deporting undocumented immigrants and refugees, to government surveillance and searches, to bombing ISIS, among other things.
“If Trump were to somehow win the presidency, voters would have extreme buyers’ remorse very quickly,” says Matt David, chief strategist for New Day for America. “We are going to accelerate that feeling of buyers’ remorse, to show people what President Trump would look and sound like.”
The group also put out a Web ad of Trump’s most controversial statements, which some criticized as a rehash of things people already knew about Trump.
Even though the RNC is not involved in the effort to take down Trump, the GOP frontrunner is dangling the threat of a third party run if he is treated “unfairly.”
“That wasn’t the deal!” he tweeted, referring to an agreement he signed with the RNC not to run as a third party candidate.
Republican strategist Ed Rollins says he doubts efforts to take down the real estate tycoon will work. “Trump’s support is different,” says Rollins, a former Ronald Reagan official who advised Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Michele Bachmann in 2012. “They already have heard all the negatives and don't care. … Trump is running as the anti-Washington candidate, and this just makes his case: ‘Washington and the Republican establishment don't want me because I represent you, not them!’”
Club for Growth spent $1 million on ads in Iowa pointing out Trump’s flip-flops over the years, apparently to no avail. The group would like to raise more money for the effort, according to the Wall Street Journal report.
Trump opponents even tried to bar him from competing in New Hampshire but failed. Former state party chairman Fergus Cullen’s formal efforts to have Trump removed from the ballot on the grounds that he’s not a true Republican were dismissed by the state ballot commission.
Trump opponents believe that even though the developer and reality TV star continues to lead in polls, voters are starting to pay closer attention to details as the election nears. And while other efforts to put down Trump have failed—and even backfired against some candidates who tried—opponents believe paid advertising against him and a more cohesive and concerted effort will make a difference this time.
“No one had put a sustained paid effort behind stopping Trump,” says David, of the pro-Kasich PAC. “We have reached the point in the race where voters are looking more seriously at the candidates. They are thinking about who is going to be commander in chief, negotiating with Putin, holding the nuclear codes.”
But an added layer is an effort to show voters how Trump reacts when provoked en masse.
“The value in having others go after him is that he will get worse when he's attacked. Bullies don’t like being attacked,” says Katie Packer, a Republican strategist and former deputy campaign manger in Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign.
“His Achilles' heel is his ceiling,” Packer says. “There is no indication that the 78 percent of GOP voters who he isn't winning will ever come his way.”
Tom Rath, a New Hampshire attorney and longtime Republican activist backing Kasich, says the offensive against Trump “is a chance to see how he plays defense.”
Rath notes that closer scrutiny of Carson has affected his numbers in a way it might not have earlier in the cycle.
Kasich, considered a long-shot candidate to win the nomination, is the most vocal anti-Trump GOP candidate at this point, making a concerted effort to go after him. The Ohio governor, who has pitched himself as the compassionate conservative, may figure that he has little to lose and more to gain by attacking Trump on issues and tone. The PAC supporting him is mindful of the general election, even if Kasich is not in it.
“There’s no doubt that nominating Donald Trump would hand Hillary Clinton the White House and set Republicans back over a decade in terms of our outreach to minorities,” says David, of New Day for America. “We’ve actually done a good job in the last couple of cycles of reaching out across traditional lines and communicating what it means to be a Republican. The idea of deporting 12 million immigrants or making Muslims register in a database would not only undo all of that, but set us back even further.”
Even Ted Cruz, considered a conservative firebrand and no friend to the establishment, said in a recent interview with the Associated Press that “tone matters.”
"Are there some in the Republican Party whose rhetoric is unhelpful with regard to immigration? Yes,” said Cruz, who has railed against GOP leaders and rival Marco Rubio for passing “amnesty” measures.
Cruz has been careful not to attack Trump, in the hopes of some day inheriting his supporters. But last week, he acknowledged that a national registry for Muslims in this country would challenge constitutional rights. “I’m not a fan of government registries of American citizens,” he said during a campaign stop.
Cruz is rising in Iowa, with the Quinnipiac poll showing him within striking distance of Trump’s lead at the expense of Ben Carson.
An irony of the establishment Republican efforts to take down Trump may be that Cruz becomes their most viable vessel.
So far, candidates and party activists have made little effort to coalesce around a nominee, which helps Trump. And although Bobby Jindal exited the race last week, lower-tier candidates show no signs of dropping out anytime soon to make way for a nominee.
And of course, it remains to be seen what effect these new efforts to defeat Trump will have on the race.
“If you push him too much institutionally, you’re going to make the supporters even angrier,” Rath says. “You have to beat him on the ground.”