Republican elders, desperate to stop Donald Trump, are increasingly convinced they would rather forfeit the White House than hand their party to the divisive Manhattan billionaire.
That’s why the party’s establishment is suddenly rallying behind Ted Cruz, a man they’ve long despised and who has little chance, in the view of many GOP veterans, of defeating Hillary Clinton on Election Day.
“People think we’re not going to win in November anymore. All the candidates that had a shot at winning don’t appear to have a shot at winning the nomination. Everyone is resigned to that,” said a high-ranking GOP operative about the thinking among Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio alums as well as Republican party officials and big-money donors.
“People think we lose with Cruz, but we don’t lose everything,” said the operative, who opposes Trump and asked to speak anonymously. “He’s still a real Republican. We don’t lose the House and Senate with Cruz. We don’t lose our soul as a party and we can recover in four years and I’m not sure people think we can recover from Donald Trump.”
Said one high-level operative inside the Koch network: “He’s the devil you know.”
Indeed, many establishment Republicans would rather lose with Cruz and play a long 2020 game than risk having their party and conservative principles hijacked by Trump—a candidate they do not trust even as they recognize his political dexterity and the possibility that he could be just cagey enough to win on Election Day.
“Donald Trump is a centrist,” said Ron Kaufman, a close ally of Mitt Romney and Bush who lives in Massachusetts. “You may not like him, but policy-wise he’s a centrist. He’s between Cruz and Kasich. If Donald Trump is the nominee, he’ll be far more centrist in language than he has been.”
Trump’s repeated requests for the party to recognize the new voters he has drawn into the Republican fold and embrace the possibilities of his candidacy have yet to convince most establishment figures; many are taking steps to emphasize their still implicit opposition to him.
On Wednesday, Paul Ryan used a 30-minute speech to argue against Trump’s brand of divisive identity politics without mentioning the candidate by name, urging the country to “stay unified” and dismissing the notion “that we’re going to win the election by dividing people.” Meanwhile, a top RNC official was meeting privately with several high-level anti-Trump activists to explain what an open convention might look like.
And on Monday, Our Principles PAC, a group founded by establishment donors to oppose Trump, sent a tracker to shoot video footage of members of Congress showing up to meet with Trump in an effort to intimidate more rank-and-file Republicans from showing any openness to his candidacy. Suddenly, the party establishment, which has long been stymied by the Tea Party movement’s demands of ideological purity, now has its own litmus test in Trump, demanding nothing less than rejection of the current front-runner for the GOP’s presidential nomination.
“No one thought we would be here at this time,” said Austin Barbour, who ran Rick Perry’s super PAC until he quit last year and then backed Bush until he, too, quit, and is now casting his lot with Cruz.
The unifying factor among the establishment Republicans now begrudgingly coalescing behind Cruz is a deep, visceral revulsion to Trump: to his divisive demagoguery that is so unmoored from traditional conservative ideology and, many believe, the party’s and country’s bedrock values. It has little to do with Cruz, who has simply done better than anyone else in the first two months of the nomination process.
“He’s earned the right to be the alternative to Trump. So he has a better chance to build a coalition to stop Trump in Cleveland,” said Bruce Haynes, a GOP operative in Washington.
Establishment Republicans, who have re-channeled their efforts on behalf of Bush and Rubio into an eleventh-hour campaign to stop Trump, have some reasons to be optimistic about their plan—if they look hard enough.
There is Ted Cruz’s formidable data program and organizational infrastructure that, when married to the RNC’s state-based program come fall, could give the GOP its best turnout program in several cycles. There are polls showing Cruz doing better than Trump in a hypothetical November matchup against Clinton. And there is the notion that Trump, should he sit atop the GOP ticket in November, could jeopardize Republican control of both the Senate and even the House.
Many GOP donors fighting Trump “believe the damage Hillary can do is mitigated by holding onto the House and Senate,” another GOP operative said.
But only some Republicans who are now aligning behind Cruz are fully engaged in this magical thinking. They know they are simply choosing between two candidates who support a border wall. Cruz, who rails against “amnesty,” is just as unpopular among Hispanics as Trump. On Tuesday following the terrorist attacks in Belgium, it was Cruz who called for increased patrols of Muslim neighborhoods.
And no amount of feigned enthusiasm from these sudden Cruz converts can cover up their resignation. Most casual political observers know that Cruz only stopped being a pariah to the Republican establishment when it became clear he was the GOP’s last chance to stop Trump.
By endorsing Cruz, Romney, Lindsey Graham and now Bush are giving definition to the “anyone” in “Anyone But Trump” movement. And Scott Walker, who hinted at a Cruz endorsement in a pre-taped radio interview broadcast Wednesday, is set to make it official in the coming days, according to a source with knowledge of the Wisconsin governor’s plans. “Senator Cruz is the only one who’s got a chance, other than Donald Trump, to win the nomination,” Walker told WTMJ radio host Charlie Sykes earlier this week.
The irony is thick.
Bush, who couldn’t nudge a conservative base back to the political center—a base that Cruz and other firebrands have driven farther to the right with their demands of ideological purity and willingness to fight anyone who breaks ranks—came above ground Wednesday, a month after ending his doomed campaign, to suffer one last public indignity in endorsing Cruz, a first-term senator whose legacy of filibustering and forcing government shutdowns the wonky, pragmatic former Florida governor offered up in contrast to his own style.
This is the same Ted Cruz his brother, former president George W. Bush, told donors at a campaign fundraiser last summer he simply didn’t like—the same Ted Cruz who bears much responsibility for bringing the Republican Party to this point.
In his four years in the Senate, Cruz leveraged conservative media to make impossible promises to a base—repealing Obamacare, blocking increases to the debt limit—that he would later convince to blame his party’s failures on an establishment that was too eager to roll over.
In his 12 months on the campaign trail, Cruz spent nearly all of last year sucking up to Trump, legitimizing his unconventional campaign with base conservatives as Bush and others were beginning to take him on, inviting him to share the stage at a rally against the Iran nuclear deal and being content to draft off the anti-establishment fervor the businessman was stirring up.
Oddly enough, Bush’s endorsement served as fodder Wednesday afternoon for Trump, who, in 140 gleeful characters, pointed out the phoniness and transactional nature of the career politicians he’s running against while insulting them at the same time.
“Low energy Jeb Bush just endorsed a man he truly hates, Lyin’ Ted Cruz. Honestly, I can’t blame Jeb in that I drove him into oblivion!” Trump tweeted.
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