GOP at Crossroads With Trump -- and Going Every Direction
Faced with the emerging reality of Donald Trump as their nominee for president, segments of the Republican Party are either panicking, plotting to take him down, becoming resigned to his candidacy, or calling for unity around the front-runner — all at once.
That a major political party is seriously weighing whether to forsake its would-be nominee is not only remarkable, but perhaps unprecedented.
Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist with deep experience in presidential campaigns, suggested Wednesday the time has come for Republicans to “pitch in to make sure that Hillary Clinton is not elected the next president.”
“I think a lot of Republicans are talking about not only locking the gate after the horse has left the barn, but the horse has left the barn and put a Trump sign on it,” Castellanos said.
The party’s disarray reflects the increasing urgency of the primary calendar, which is rapidly approaching a point of no return for Republicans hoping to stop Trump before he reaches the convention in Cleveland.
Many Republicans point to March 15 as the crucial date, when the calendar will transition to winner-take-all contests, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio will face immense pressure to win their home states over Trump. If they cannot, the path to a showdown at a contested convention might close.
"It gets much tougher to justify massive efforts to defeat the nominee if he is putting away huge winner-take-all states," said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist.
For those Republicans still in the bargaining stage of grief, the next two weeks will be pivotal. A super PAC funded by some of the party’s most influential donors, Our Principles PAC, is ramping up its anti-Trump operations, this week bringing on former Jeb Bush communications director Tim Miller, a veteran of the opposition research sphere.
Miller wrote in an email before the Super Tuesday primary that the PAC plans to “fight until the last delegate is counted” to stop Trump from becoming the party’s nominee, suggesting a march toward a contested convention.
Meanwhile, some of the party’s elder statesmen are stepping up their efforts to rebuke the front-runner. Mitt Romney will speak Thursday on “the state of the 2016 presidential race and the choices facing the Republican Party and the country,” not to make an endorsement but to directly take on Trump, a source close to Romney told the Boston Globe.
But these efforts might soon collide with an urgent political reality: the Republican field is not consolidating fast enough for a single candidate to emerge as the clear alternative to Trump and overtake him during the course of the primary or cooperate to ensure this outcome.
Former Sen. Trent Lott, who has endorsed Kasich, said he has been in touch with other campaigns in an attempt to suss out the best course of action. "We're talking to all the people involved,” Lott said. “We’re looking at something that might change the dynamics."
But there is no détente – at least not yet. To take on Trump, someone (besides Ben Carson, who exited the race Wednesday), would have to drop out. And Sen. Ted Cruz, Rubio and Kasich each has made his case as the best candidate to carry the anti-Trump mantle. Cruz received a boost in this regard Tuesday when he notched victories in Texas, Oklahoma and Alaska, bringing his total wins in the primary to four.
“So long as the field remains divided, Donald Trump’s path to the nomination remains more likely, and that would be a disaster for Republicans, for conservatives and for the nation,” Cruz said.
That message resonated even with Sen. Lindsey Graham, who long ago established himself as a mortal enemy to Cruz in the Senate. Now, Graham says, Trump is his greater foe, and the party’s.
“At the end of the day, Donald Trump is not a conservative,” Graham told RCP. “If he becomes the face of the party, then I think we’re going to have a hard time winning elections in the 21st century.”
Facing growing opposition from party faithful, even as he continued to rack up delegates, Trump encouraged Republicans to quit denying his candidacy and embrace his campaign for the good of the party.
“I'm a unifier. I know people will find this hard to believe,” he said during a presidential-like press conference at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla. “Once we get this finished, I'm going to go after one person on the assumption she is allowed to run … We’re going to be a much bigger party. Our party is expanding. "
The appeal struck a chord with some in the party coming to terms with the notion that he is well on his way to the nomination—and that any attempts at the convention by party leaders to wrest the crown bestowed by voters might alienate his supporters already furious at the establishment forces in the party.
"I think it would be harmful to the country for Republicans to change the rules after the game has been played," Castellanos said.
There is also a sense—or perhaps simply a hope—among some that Trump is coachable, and that he would ultimately know what to do and say to win.
“What he did last night was really a smart move,” Lott said. “He's capable of turning or changing his demeanor and what he says and how he does it.”
But others in the party don’t even want to entertain the idea of a Trump transformation, noting his potential ability to change makes him all the more unhinged and unpredictable. Many Republicans would rather not wait and see what Trump could do.
Trump’s momentum has yielded a “Never Trump” movement of Republicans who say they would under no circumstances support the billionaire businessman if he were to be the standard bearer of the party. Nebraska freshman Sen. Ben Sasse, a conservative, has been leading the charge. An Associated Press survey of Republican senators and governors found that just under half would not back Trump if he were the party’s nominee.
"I don’t see responsible Republicans thinking they can rally around Trump," said John Weaver, chief strategist for the Kasich campaign. "I can’t imagine such a scenario. If he's the nominee, then Hillary Clinton is the luckiest politician on earth."
But if a segment of the Republican Party will not accept Trump as its nominee, denying him the nomination would be another matter entirely, perhaps requiring unprecedented rules kabuki at the convention. That idea does not sit well with many Republicans who oppose Trump.
“The rules of this primary process and achieving delegates are what they are,” said Rep. Steve King, who has endorsed Cruz. “The party cannot be in a position that they are changing the rules of this process because Trump emerges. That has to be done by the people.”
The party might have shaped the will of the people, had campaigns, donors and party leaders acted sooner to undercut Trump. Through February, just 4 percent of all super PAC and outside spending, or roughly $9 million, was spent on ads attacking the Republican front-runner, the Washington Post found.
Making up for that lost time pits the Republican Party and its remaining non-Trump candidates against monumental odds and a political giant in Trump. If they are to overcome both, the primary will stretch into a long slog. And at this stage, that is the best Trump’s rivals can hope for.
“Anyone who says this race is inevitable, they’re not paying attention,” said one Cruz campaign aide. “We’re only halfway through.”
James Arkin contributed to this report.