"Never Trump" Groups Struggle to Craft Strategy

"Never Trump" Groups Struggle to Craft Strategy
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When one of Donald Trump’s most outspoken Republican opponents proposed a little-known conservative writer as the long-awaited alternative to the party’s presumptive nominee, the “Never Trump” movement, such as it was, appeared lifeless. The failure to draft a party star to wage an independent bid was considered the nail in the coffin.

But among those who consider themselves Never Trump diehards, there are differences of opinion about how to be most effective in their opposition.

For some, like Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, it apparently has meant fielding a candidate -- relatively obscure writer and lawyer David French -- to give conservatives ideologically opposed to Trump a way out and to more effectively help GOP candidates down the ballot.

But others don’t believe rallying behind an alternative candidate is necessarily the solution.

Conservative activist Erick Erickson said on his radio show Wednesday night that he had evolved in his thinking about an alternative candidate, and argued that it might help Trump in the end by giving the likely GOP nominee someone to blame if he lost in November. 

“My ultimate conclusion is it may be good if conservatives do not do a third party bid,” Erickson said.

And some are focusing their attention on other contests in the hopes of preserving the party’s control over the House and Senate, despite having Trump at the top of the ticket.

There are also competing theories about whether an independent bid would help or hurt candidates down the ballot. 

The Never Trump effort came about when there was still hope among Republicans of stopping the front-runner from securing the nomination. Last week, Trump officially passed the 1,237-delegate threshold required to become the nominee. Now, those who pledged never to support him are trying to find their place in a reality they had hoped was just a bad dream: Donald Trump as the GOP nominee.

“We are kind of in a reorganizational phase,” says Rory Cooper of the Never Trump super PAC, noting that the group will have a better assessment after the convention.

“I think there is a really huge misconception about what the Never Trump movement is. Somehow it’s conveniently become shorthand for a third party candidate,” Cooper says. “But Never Trump is really a lot simpler than that. We don't want the party to become an echo chamber of his beliefs.”

Cooper says the group is planning to focus on ways to protect the party from Trump, and to prepare it for what comes after the November election. 

“There are certain elements yearning for an alternative candidate, but the vast majority exists to hold steady to the values that existed before Trump announced his candidacy,” Cooper says of Never Trump.

Some who have been anti-Trump in the past are slowly coming around. Many conservatives “just think it's almost pure heresy to cast a vote for Trump, so they're looking at the alternatives to Trump and Hillary,” says Ken Blackwell, a Republican consultant who advises the Our Principles PAC, which opposed Trump.

But Blackwell says he will support Trump out of opposition to Clinton and believes an independent bid would derail the party further.

“I think it's unfortunate that anybody is giving serious consideration to wasting a vote in that manner when we have such critical stakes in play in November,” he said of an alternative candidate. 

An independent candidate, should one emerge, would have trouble with ballot access. Rules for getting on the ballot make such a candidacy difficult to wage; some deadlines have already passed, and some requirements are particularly burdensome. The endeavor would also require vast sums of money.

And there isn’t a candidate. Names floated by some Trump opponents included Mitt Romney, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, and former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, among others. But all have passed. Even French, whom Kristol proposed on Tuesday, hasn’t agreed to run.

“If French does step up to the plate and take on this challenge, it will be a profile in courage — but it will also highlight the fact that this is a desperation move,” wrote conservative columnist Matt Lewis. “This level of desperation tells us all we need to know about the pathetic state of the #NeverTrump movement, and says a lot about what's wrong with the GOP.”

Over the weekend, Gary Johnson of New Mexico and William Weld of Massachusetts secured the nomination for president and vice president, respectively, on the Libertarian ticket, which is already on the ballot in over 32 states.

Johnson and Weld, both former Republican two-term governors, are now on a media tour promoting their candidacy and aiming to improve the ticket’s showing in the polls. They hope to pull from dissatisfied voters on both sides, and have had particularly strong criticisms of Trump’s rhetoric. But their views on social issues could turn away conservatives who might otherwise be interested.

For his part, Trump has been warning against a “spoiler” independent bid that he says would not only lose the election for Republicans, but also their wish list for Supreme Court and administration seats along with it.

“The Republican Party has to be smart & strong if it wants to win in November. Can't allow lightweights to set up a spoiler Indie candidate!” Trump tweeted.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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