The Stop-Trump fever that gripped the Republican establishment for months has broken.
The walls are closing in around a shrinking band of hard-core opponents of the New York billionaire, who is tightening his grip on the Republican presidential nomination with big wins in state after state, congressional endorsements, and the acknowledgment from pillars of the GOP elite that Donald Trump will be the party’s standard-bearer.
There was grizzled RNC committeeman Ron Kaufman likening Trump to Reagan. There was Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s half-hearted endorsement of Ted Cruz. There was former House Speaker John Boehner’s confession that he and Trump are texting buddies and golfing partners. There’s the slew of endorsements (and a prediction by Trump campaign officials that another wave is coming after Indiana votes next week). It’s adding up to a slow but steady coalescing around the man once considered so vile to the GOP base that he’d rip the party to shreds.
“We’ve had enough intraparty fighting. Now’s the time to stitch together a winning coalition,” said Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah. “And it’s been clear almost from the beginning that Donald Trump has the ability to assemble a nontraditional bloc of supporters. … The ability to cut across traditional party boundaries — like ’80, ’92 and 2008 — will be key, and Trump is much better positioned to achieve that.”
Huntsman isn’t alone. He’s the latest in a long list of party stalwarts and defenders of the GOP establishment that have accepted Trump as the best remaining option in the field — and are encouraging Trump’s opponents to wind down.
“Clearly, Trump has seized momentum in a huge way,” said Kaufman, a close ally of Mitt Romney who supported Jeb Bush’s candidacy this year. “As he goes through the process here in Indiana, it appears more and more likely that Trump will be able to have 1,237 [delegates] before we descend on Cleveland.” That’s enough to claim the nomination.
“There’s a chance here that in the end, our presumptive nominee will be known before the Democrats,” he continued. “Who would have thought that?”
Now, it looks like it’s the opposition — not Trump — who is dividing the GOP.
“We are not doing anything in the interest of party unity,” said Katie Packer, founder of the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC, which put out a blistering anti-Trump ad Friday afternoon. “We do not think there is anything noble about wrapping our arms around a candidate who isn’t a Republican, doesn’t have a serious policy agenda and has not secured a majority of Republican votes.”
“I’m willing to do anything in my power to stop Trump from hijacking our party,” Packer continued.
But pro-Cruz and anti-Trump forces are running out of options to prevent Trump from becoming the nominee. If the real estate developer and reality television star scores a big win in Indiana on Tuesday, Cruz’s only remaining strategy may be a hostile takeover of the Republican National Convention — a move GOP insiders still see as possible but certainly one that could severely damage the party.
Trump’s growing list of elected allies are encouraging Cruz to discard any such thinking.
“It’d hurt the very party that they want to represent,” Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) told POLITICO on Friday. “That’s not good and that’s why I believe that the establishment and people in Washington should say this is over. Donald Trump is clearly, clearly who the people want.”
Trump’s top adviser, Paul Manafort, is doing more than appealing for unity. He and his team are now making the case to lawmakers that Trump will seal the nomination before the national convention with a combination of bound delegates and roughly 40 unbound delegates from Pennsylvania who they consider solid Trump supporters, according to two Capitol Hill allies of Trump.
Even before Trump’s six straight primary blowouts in the past two weeks, Manafort told lawmakers at an April 14 meeting that the front-runner would win on the first ballot. Manafort based that case on projections that Trump has since exceeded, including a projected 85 bound delegates in New York, where the businessman ended up winning 89 delegates, according to a Republican aide.
Even if Trump crosses the threshold to earn 1,237 bound delegates at the convention, Cruz may not be out of options. The Texas senator has been crushing Trump in the shadow fight for loyal convention delegates — delegates who could be free to vote their preference on a second ballot. It’s conceivable that a majority of the delegates at the convention in Cleveland will oppose Trump’s nomination, even if they’re bound to vote for him. In that scenario, that majority could unseat scores of Trump delegates, rewrite convention rules to eliminate any binding requirements and make it less likely — if not impossible — for Trump to claim the nomination.
Cruz campaign officials have offered no hints as to whether they’d consider those options, or even make an attempt that could be cast as a coup. Party elders say they expect no radical gambits that would undermine the results of the primaries and caucuses.
Anti-Trump forces have not signaled whether their opposition will extend to the convention yet, especially if Trump clinches the delegates needed on a first ballot before the GOP descends on Cleveland. The conservative Club for Growth said in a statement that it expects to defeat Trump in Indiana and again in California, denying him the delegates to win the nomination outright. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, whose family of wealth GOP donors has spearheaded the anti-Trump movement, is also poised to endorse Cruz.
An attempted convention takeover, however, would require Cruz’s team to assume that all of the delegates who have pledged loyalty to the Texan remain loyal in the face of massive backlash from party leaders. Indeed, even Cruz’s team knows that some of their delegates signed on simply to oppose Trump, not out of any deep attachment to Cruz.
“I think Cruz is counting on a lot of the people who have said that they’re going to support him. But a lot of those same people are coming around and are going to be — they’re going to be transitioning to Trump delegates,” said Corey Stewart, Trump’s Virginia campaign director. “They want to support a winner. These are very smart people and politically savvy people. … They’re coming around.”
If Cruz were to pursue a convention takeover anyway, there’s a roadmap waiting for him.
North Dakota GOP committeeman Curly Haugland has been agitating for years that delegates may not be forced to vote against their conscience under the party’s current rules. Though a provision requires the secretary of the convention — a position appointed by the delegates — to record votes based on the party’s binding rules, a separate, conflicting provision lays out an entirely different vote-counting process in which delegates may cast a ballot for any candidate they choose — and do it secretly. Haugland argues that the latter rule supersedes the former because it is included in a section of the rules specifically meant to control the 2016 convention.
Haugland, who will be on this year’s convention rules committee, said he intends to propose language to eliminate the binding language to govern future conventions. His critics generally dismiss his proposals as politically unpalatable moves that would disenfranchise primary and caucus voters, but this year, the fervor among anti-Trump forces for a contested convention could lend his ideas currency.
One advocate of the stop-Trump-at-all-costs approach is Stuart Stevens, a former senior adviser to 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney. Stevens said he’s witnessed the slow acquiescence to Trump by party insiders, but he says he’ll never play along. He said that even if Trump reaches 1,237 bound delegates before the convention, Cruz should use his delegate advantage to block him anyway.
“You should do anything you can that’s within — anything you can legally — to try to win an election,” he said. “The Republican Party prided itself on opposing the Communist party and it would be a laughable irony if they fell into the Communist Party line and were supposed to ‘do what’s good for the party.’ Brezhnev would be chuckling somewhere.”
“I’m for fighting all the way,” he added.
Lauren Dezenski and Darren Samuelsohn contributed.
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