With both Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) running ahead of establishment favorite Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) in Rubio’s home state of Florida, the establishment is beginning to realize how precarious its situation actually is. Cruz and Trump are most likely to win Iowa; Rubio is running a distant third in current polling. In New Hampshire, Rubio runs a distant second behind Trump, but he’s grouped in with Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ), Cruz, Governor John Kasich (R-OH) and former Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL).
And so the possibility now arises: if Donald Trump is the nominee, will the Republican Party back him? Or will they destroy the party the way they suggested ardent conservatives were poised to do in 2008 and 2012?
It appears that Republican establishment figures are already thinking along those lines.
On Thursday, former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman wrote in the pages of Politico, “Republicans, now is the time to defeat this scourge of our party. We can make America great again by defeating the selfishness, arrogance and bigotry of Donald Trump.” She called Trump “evil” and compared him to Hitler. She called Trump a threat to “the very foundational values on which our party and our nation were built.”
Does that sound like someone prepared to support Trump if he wins the nomination?
On Wednesday, Politico (it’s always Politico, isn’t it?) reported that Bush aides “began looking into the possibility of making a clear break with Trump – potentially with the candidate stating that, if Trump were the nominee, Bush would not support him….the option may still be on the table.”
Meanwhile, Joe Scarborough said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that if Trump were the nominee, the Republican Party honchos would run a third party candidate to split the vote and give Hillary Clinton the presidency: “I think Haley Barbour and a lot of the Republican leaders would much rather Hillary Clinton be President of the United States than have Donald Trump represent them as a Republican.” Scarborough went on to suggest that the establishment would recruit Mitt Romney or Michael Bloomberg to run third party to take a “political bullet for his party.”
Back at the end of November, The Hill suggested that GOP donors would back Hillary over Trump: “In conversations over the past month, GOP establishment donors have confided to The Hill that for the first time in recent memory, they find themselves contemplating not supporting a Republican nominee for president.”
The establishment and their donor base have spent so much time trying to determine how to lock grassroots conservatives out of the halls of power that they’re now finding themselves overrun – and they’re fleeing into the arms of defeat. Trump’s ascendancy has made one thing crystal clear: the establishment wouldn’t just prefer Hillary over Trump – their decision not to support Trump virtually guarantees Hillary the presidency – but that they would prefer Hillary over Ted Cruz. They could, at any time, move their support from Rubio and Christie and Kasich and Bush to Cruz; if they did so, Cruz would wallop Trump in the primaries. They aren’t doing so, because they hold out hope that Rubio will somehow pull victory from the jaws of defeat.
That hope is fading. The longer they wait, the clearer it becomes that the establishment’s worst nightmare isn’t merely Trump, but something bigger: losing control of the Party to either a hard-line conservative or a populist. It’s their way or the highway. And if they don’t get their way, they’ll make Hillary Clinton president.