MANCHESTER, N.H. — The Republican establishment has been plunged into disarray by Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, which revitalized Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBy any other name: Revised Trump border rules will still be a Muslim ban Trump's first dinner out in DC: His own hotel Social media users respond to Trump's decision to skip White House correspondents' dinner MORE’s campaign and muddled the chances for a centrist alternative to emerge.
The Granite State result is just about the worst possible one from the establishment’s perspective — ensuring the centrist vote will remain divided, with no candidate in that lane having momentum and a viable path to victory.
Trump won the Granite State resoundingly, being projected as the winner by multiple news organizations as soon as polls closed at 8 p.m. As of 11 p.m., he was way out in front, leading second-place John Kasich by a margin of more than two-to-one with 76 percent of precincts reporting.
Just as importantly, the primary delivered a heavy blow to Marco RubioMarco RubioAt CPAC, Trump lashes out at media Conquering Trump returns to conservative summit Rubio brushes off demonstrator asking about town halls MORE, stopping dead the momentum he had received from his strong third-place finish in last week’s Iowa caucuses.
Those two factors alone are enough to cause consternation among establishment Republicans, who hope to see Trump taken down by someone on their wavelength.
“The sense of urgency will certainly increase,” said Kevin Madden, a GOP strategist who advised 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Others are resigned to a lengthy wait.
“Today delayed the establishment unity effort, which now won't happen before March 1 and may not happen until after March 15,” said Matt Mackowiak, another Republican strategist who also writes for The Hill's Contributors blog, referring to two days that see primaries and caucuses in multiple states. “Tonight was a very good night for Trump and [Ted] Cruz.”
Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses but whose fervent conservatism was widely seen as a poor fit for the GOP electorate in New Hampshire, was in a dogfight with Jeb Bush for third place late Tuesday night. He’ll be satisfied with that performance, but it will unnerve a Republican establishment that holds the Texas senator in as much distaste as Trump.
Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee spokesman, said “clearly it will take a while longer” before a sole standard bearer for the centrists emerges.
Only a week ago, the picture had seemed very different. In the wake of Rubio’s surprisingly strong finish in Iowa, some centrists hoped that support would coalesce behind the Florida senator, while rivals Kasich, Bush and Chris Christie faded away. Rubio aides had insisted that Iowa had made the contest a three-man race: him versus Cruz and Trump.
That idea lies in ruins now. Rubio was panned for a poor debate performance Saturday — largely inflicted at the hands of Christie. The Florida senator was trailing in fifth place in New Hampshire as of 11 p.m.
Rubo told supporters that a similar debate debacle would “never happen again,” but much of the damage has been done. He is now badly wounded and limping toward the South Carolina primary on Feb. 20.
But if Rubio does not emerge as the man who can vanquish Trump on behalf of Republican centrists, who will?
Kasich won a moral victory in the Granite State with his second-place finish, ahead of all the other establishment candidates. But Kasich was still beaten by a huge margin by Trump in a state that seemed tailor-made for the moderate Midwestern governor.
Kasich’s chances of ultimately becoming the nominee are widely viewed as very small, and even the prospect of him performing strongly in South Carolina or in the many Deep South states that vote on Mar. 1 may be slim.
Aides to Jeb Bush sought to put the most positive spin on his performance, but it remains to be seen whether the former Florida governor has gained enough traction to become a real contender.
Bush nonetheless made the most of Rubio’s troubles Tuesday evening.
“Last Monday night, when the Iowa caucuses were complete, they said the race was now a three-person race between two present senators and a reality TV star,” Bush told a group of supporters at his primary watch party in Manchester, N.H.
“And while the reality TV star is still doing well, it looks like you all have reset things.”
Christie, despite his strong debate, trailed in behind Rubio. He announced Tuesday he would go back to New Jersey to evaluate his campaign’s future.
“This race is about to get very, very expensive, as a still-crowded field starts to compete across multiple states at the beginning of March,” Madden said.
Cate Martel contributed.