GOP lawmakers face agonizing choice between Trump and Cruz

GOP lawmakers face agonizing choice between Trump and Cruz
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Republican lawmakers are warily eyeing the possibility of a brokered convention that could force party leaders to choose between Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzWith religious liberty memo, Trump made America free to be faithful again Interstate compacts aren't the right way to fix occupational licensing laws Texas Dem: ‘I don’t know what to believe’ about what Trump wants for wall MORE (R-Texas) and celebrity businessman Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems flip Wisconsin state Senate seat Sessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants GOP rep: 'Sheet metal and garbage' everywhere in Haiti MORE for their presidential nominee. 

It is, they say, a very difficult choice. From their perspective, it’s picking between the devil they know and the devil they don’t know.

Many GOP senators have declined to state their preferences publicly while the race remains competitive. Privately, they are flummoxed at the possibility of likely having to choose between two candidates they view as highly problematic.

Lawmakers who spoke to The Hill on background say they are wavering over who would be the better nominee — or more bluntly, the lesser of two evils.

Trump is generally viewed as having a better chance of beating Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonIntel Dem decries White House 'gag order' after Bannon testimony 'Total free-for-all' as Bannon clashes with Intel members Mellman: On Political Authenticity (Part 2) MORE and less of a negative impact on Republican candidates down-ballot in the general election. But the idea of him in the Oval Office makes some GOP senators uncomfortable.

“Trump would have a better chance against Hillary Clinton and wouldn’t be as bad for Republicans in other races, but I think Cruz would make a better president,” said one GOP senator who requested anonymity.

“Trump wouldn’t have as much of an impact down-ballot because it would be easier for us to disassociate from him,” the lawmaker stated.

Lawmakers said they had a hard time distancing themselves from former Missouri Rep. Todd Akin (R) and former Indiana treasurer Richard Mourdock in 2012 after they made controversial comments on rape and abortion.

Some think it would be easier to create distance from Trump because he’s running as a businessman new to politics who supported Republicans and Democrats in the past.

A Republican senator argued the recent primaries in Alabama and Arkansas, which Sens. Richard Shelby and John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanThe Hill's Whip List: Where Republicans stand on Senate tax bill Lobbying World The Hill's Whip List: Republicans try again on ObamaCare repeal MORE won with 65 percent and 76 percent, respectively, show that Trump may help GOP candidates by boosting turnout.

“Set aside Trump’s disadvantages. He would probably bring out a lot of people to vote. If you look at Shelby’s and Boozman’s primaries, Trump won their states and they won big,” he said. “So it looks like people who come out to vote for Trump are comfortable voting for the Republican Senate candidate.”

The idea of Trump in the Oval Office, however, makes stomachs churn on Capitol Hill because he is so unpredictable. And while the billionaire may have helped Republicans in a deep red state, how will he affect vulnerable Republican senators in purple and blue states in November?

Cruz, meanwhile, is the least popular member of the Senate, though his colleagues say at least they have an idea of what to expect from him.

“It’s a Hobson’s choice. Cruz is more predictable. Predictability is comforting in politics,” said another Republican senator, who agreed that Trump has more upside potential against Clinton because of his appeal among blue-collar voters in the battleground states of the Upper Midwest.

“The thing with Trump is he’s unpredictable. You really don’t know how he would act as president,” the lawmaker added.

More than 50 conservative national security and foreign policy experts released a letter last week panning Trump as unfit to serve as commander in chief.

Trump pledged Tuesday night after winning victories in Michigan and Mississippi that he would adopt a more presidential tone in office.

“I can be more presidential than anybody,” he told supporters at a rally in Florida. “If I want to, I can be more presidential than anybody.”

Republican senators won’t get to vote for the nominee in Cleveland, where the convention will be held in July, but they may have influence as senior party officials if Trump or Cruz fail to win on the first ballot.

“I don’t know how it works. It’s uncharted territory,” said Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcCain rips Trump for attacks on press NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Meghan McCain says her father regrets opposition to MLK Day MORE (R-Ariz.), the party’s standard-bearer in 2008.

A well-funded coalition of anti-Trump Republicans has emerged, but giving the nomination to someone else if he wins the plurality of delegates could prompt a revolt by his supporters.

“A legitimate question is, suppose they have a brokered convention and they don’t pick Trump? What does he do?” McCain added.

Trump has 458 delegates, while Cruz, who’s in second place, has 359, according to The Associated Press. Trump would need to win 54 percent of the remaining delegates and Cruz just over 60 percent to reach the 1,237 needed to clinch the nod outright.

If neither candidate reaches the magic number, the nominee may be decided by two, three or more rounds of balloting at the convention in Cleveland. A larger proportion of the delegates will become unbound with each successive vote, giving them more and more discretion to pick the party’s standard-bearer.

Trump will take a major step toward avoiding a brokered convention if he wins Florida and Ohio, two large winner-take-all states, which will allocate delegates after the March 15 primaries.

Republican senators say Trump has proven himself to be a formidable political force. However, they question whether he’ll stick to conservative policy tenets once in office.

“Trump doesn’t have much of a political compass. He has the ability to redefine himself over the course of a debate,” said another GOP senator. “My concern with Trump is there’s a greater likelihood of the pendulum swinging to the left of center with him in office.”

On the other hand, the lawmaker fretted that Cruz as president would routinely swat down bills passed by Congress if they contained elements of compromise.

“With Cruz I’d be worried about opposition along the lines that things don’t go far enough,” the GOP senator added.

 Republican senators say Trump could prove a stronger general election candidate than Cruz because of his appeal to independent voters, but the polling has been contradictory.

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey shows that Clinton and Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersMellman: On Political Authenticity (Part 2) Former Sanders campaign manager: Don't expect email list to be shared with DNC Adult film star: Trump and Stormy Daniels invited me to 'hang out' MORE (I-Vt.), who is also vying for the Democratic nomination, would beat Trump by double-digits in a general election match-up. The same survey showed Cruz trailing Clinton by only 2 points and Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Cybersecurity: Bipartisan bill aims to deter election interference | Russian hackers target Senate | House Intel panel subpoenas Bannon | DHS giving 'active defense' cyber tools to private sector Senators unveil bipartisan push to deter future election interference Puerto Rico's children need recovery funds MORE (R-Fla.) tied with her at 46 percent.

But other polls show Trump beating Clinton in the key battlegrounds of Florida and Ohio.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDHS chief takes heat over Trump furor Overnight Defense: GOP chair blames Dems for defense budget holdup | FDA, Pentagon to speed approval of battlefield drugs | Mattis calls North Korea situation 'sobering' Bipartisan group to introduce DACA bill in House MORE (R-S.C.), who dropped out the 2016 presidential race in December, has suggested that Republicans should rally around Cruz.

Cruz and Graham spoke on the phone last week but Graham, who quipped that having to choose between Trump and Cruz is like picking between “being shot or poisoned,” said he doesn’t have any plans to make an endorsement.

“I go back and forth between them,” another GOP senator told The Hill Wednesday. “They’re both so unpredictable.”

The legislator added that he and his colleagues have been reluctant to come out publicly against Trump because they fear endorsing a rival would only backfire.

“A lot of us are afraid, well not afraid, but reluctant to come out for someone because it will probably help Trump. Trump will just say, ‘See, there goes the establishment,’” the Republican senator said.