Republicans in Washington are divided over how to handle Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer CIA chief shuts down Trump's calls for waterboarding Why some Republican women won't be voting for Trump Black Lives Matter leader: Dem convention protests possible MORE, who after Super Tuesday is a step closer to becoming the GOP standard-bearer this fall.
Trump’s rise has stunned establishment Republicans, who have been grasping for any strategy that might deny Trump the nomination.
“Either we trust the primary system or we don’t. We trust the primary voters or we don’t,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), who had endorsed Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulTrump: Rivals who don't back me shouldn't be allowed to run for office Trump hires Rand Paul's former digital director: report Trump flexes new digital muscle MORE (R-Ky.) before he dropped out of the race. “I will be supporting our nominee against Mrs. [Hillary] Clinton.”
Among Senate Republicans, there’s a growing feeling that opposition to Trump would backfire, given voter distrust of the GOP establishment.
“My impression is the voters are voting with their own minds and they’re not looking for direction or guidance from me or anybody else,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynAxelrod: Lynch, Bill Clinton meeting 'foolish' Dem: Lynch should have 'steered clear' of Bill Clinton Overnight Finance: Trump threatens NAFTA withdrawal | Senate poised for crucial Puerto Rico vote | Ryan calls for UK trade deal | Senate Dems block Zika funding deal MORE (R-Texas).
In the House, Wednesday marked the first sign of any coordination between Trump’s campaign and Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanCNN to host town hall with Ryan ahead of convention 'Never Trump' plots its last stand Overnight Finance: Senate sends Puerto Rico bill to Obama | Treasury, lawmakers to meet on tax rules | Obama hits Trump on NAFTA | Fed approves most banks' capital plans MORE’s (R-Wis.) office, which said it had been contacted by the front-runner’s campaign about discussing the party’s agenda this fall.
Republicans determined to prevent Trump from becoming the party’s standard-bearer are running out of time and options.
The Club for Growth and other conservative groups hope to stop Trump’s momentum with a multimillion-dollar ad barrage in Florida and Ohio, two crucial battleground states that will hold winner-take-all primaries on March 15.
But the anti-Trump campaigns have had little impact so far, with the businessman co-opting the “establishment” attacks into his outsider message.
There’s also half-hearted chatter among Republicans about a floor fight at this summer’s GOP convention in Cleveland. Some even hold out hope that a third-party candidate could enter the race.
“These are things that are unprecedented, but this has already been an unprecedented campaign,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye, a former party official who says he won’t back Trump as the nominee under any circumstance. “You cannot definitively rule anything out.”
Like Heye, a handful of congressional Republicans, including Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.) and Reps. Scott RigellScott RigellGun-control supporters plan next steps versus NRA House Republicans pushing gun control bill Overnight Regulation: Deadlocked court delivers blow to Obama immigration actions MORE (Va.) and Carlos Curbelo (Fla.), have said they’ll refuse to support Trump if he wins the party’s nomination — though none would say he’d cross party lines and vote for Clinton.
On the other end of the spectrum is a small cadre of GOP lawmakers who have gone all in for Trump: Sen. Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsTrump hopes for boost from Brexit vote GOP senators: Brexit vote a wake-up call Sessions warns of 'radical' Clinton immigration policy MORE (Ala.), who endorsed him at a rally in Alabama, and Reps. Chris Collins (N.Y.), Duncan Hunter (Calif.), Scott DesJarlais (Tenn.) and Tom Marino (Pa.).
The two most powerful Republicans in Washington — Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnell'Never Trump' plots its last stand Dems leery of Planned Parenthood cuts spark Senate scuffle Overnight Finance: Senate sends Puerto Rico bill to Obama | Treasury, lawmakers to meet on tax rules | Obama hits Trump on NAFTA | Fed approves most banks' capital plans MORE (R-Ky.) — have pledged to back Trump if he’s the GOP nominee. But hours before polls closed on Tuesday, they both rebuked Trump for failing to firmly disavow the support of former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke.
And at a Super Tuesday news conference held after his victories, Trump said he and Ryan would either get along of the Speaker would “pay a big price.”
Both Ryan and McConnell also have a strong interest in protecting vulnerable GOP incumbents and their House and Senate majorities.
Democrats already are linking vulnerable Republicans to the GOP front-runner. In a TV ad, Democratic Rep. Ann KirkpatrickAnn KirkpatrickGOP senator: Trump could lose Arizona Pollster: Clinton leads in 5 battlegrounds The Trail 2016: Reversal of fortunes MORE blasted Sen. John McCainJohn McCainCutting corners in a federal campaign is criminal Bush World goes for Clinton, but will a former president? GOP senator: Trump could lose Arizona MORE (R-Ariz.) for saying he’d support Trump if he is the nominee. And after the KKK controversy, House Democrats’ campaign arm circulated a photo of Trump with vulnerable Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.).
Ryan’s “avoiding the day-to-day food fight, but he will speak up when he believes there are remarks being made contrary to what we stand for as conservatives and, more importantly, as Americans,” said a source close to the Speaker.
Trump has secured at least 319 delegates, compared with 226 for Texas Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzMike Lee: Trump 'accused my best friend’s father of conspiring to kill JFK' Trump: Rivals who don't back me shouldn't be allowed to run for office Kasich touts poll showing he does better against Clinton than Trump MORE, 110 for Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioPoll: Rubio holds massive lead in primary Rubio: Turkey attack 'directed' by ISIS Trump: Rivals who don't back me shouldn't be allowed to run for office MORE, 25 for Ohio Gov. John Kasich and eight for Ben Carson, according to The Associated Press. To capture the nomination, a candidate needs 1,237 delegates.
Though Trump has begun pulling away from the pack, his remaining rivals are refusing to drop out, in the event Trump gets tripped up and can’t close the deal.
“It’s like two cars in the Daytona 500. Cruz is in the draft, right on his bumper, hoping that Trump blows out a tire so to speak,” said one Southern GOP lawmaker who is staying neutral in the primary. “But they are getting closer and closer to the finish line.”
GOP leaders recognize they have little ability to push anyone out of the race to boost the chances of coalescing around a Trump alternative. And his rivals want to stay in the race as long as they can, given the possibility of a brokered convention in mid-July, Cornyn said.
“Kasich, for example, wants to stay in at least through Ohio because he thinks he can win Ohio. My guess is if he wins Ohio, he’ll stick around a while longer,” Cornyn said.
Some Republicans are giving a second look to Cruz, who is second in the delegate count after winning four states.
Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamOvernight Defense: US blames ISIS for Turkey attack | Afghan visas in spending bill | Army rolls up its sleeves Senate panel passes bill that would create 4K visas for Afghans Trump: Rivals who don't back me shouldn't be allowed to run for office MORE (R-S.C.), who just last week joked about how no one would be convicted for killing Cruz on the Senate floor if the jury were made up of his colleagues, on Tuesday floated the idea that Republicans could rally to support the Texas senator.
But Graham is in the distinct minority. Several GOP senators argue Cruz would have an even more negative effect on Senate candidates than Trump. Plus, lawmakers would have to overcome their intense personal dislike of Cruz.
“The reason that people aren’t attacking Trump with more vitriol is because they really hate Cruz,” said a senior GOP aide. “You can’t underestimate the schadenfreude factor of how much people want to see Cruz go down.”
McConnell has remained terse with his colleagues on the subject of Trump. He advised them during a lunch meeting last Thursday to be prepared to run against the nominee but didn’t go into much detail.
“There was not a list of instructions,” said one lawmaker who requested anonymity to speak about internal discussions. “He said, ‘You have to prepare the situation.’ ”
“He said, ‘Be prepared to run against the nominee,’ ” said another GOP senator, who added that McConnell assured colleagues that the party would direct the bulk of its resources to saving the Senate if it became clear Trump or any other nominee had no chance of winning.
“He said in 1996 it was clear that [Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole] was going to lose, and the party put resources into Senate and House races instead,” the lawmaker added.
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