Republicans brace for Hurricane Donald

Republicans are increasingly worried that a Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens 2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for Republicans' MORE presidential candidacy could drag down their strongest field in recent memory.

“He’s an unwelcome distraction,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “We already have so many candidates vying for attention, and he brings a sideshow element to the whole thing.”

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Trump, a billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV star, has scheduled a “major” announcement from Trump Tower in New York City on June 16. Speculation is rampant that he will enter the White House race, one day after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) is virtually certain to make his own candidacy official.

Some Republicans remain skeptical that Trump will actually join the field, however. He has flirted with running in every cycle since 2000, most notably in 2012, when he was briefly at the top of the GOP polls. But he’s never taken the plunge.

Trump and his aides insist he’s serious this go-round. 

He launched an exploratory committee in March, and he’s been a fixture at Republican presidential forums. Trump’s political team points to hires in early-voting states, such as New Hampshire, where he has five people on the ground; and Iowa, where Chuck Laudner, who steered former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) to victory in the 2012 Iowa caucuses, is now on Team Trump.

The core concern within the GOP is that Trump’s abrasiveness and penchant for personal attacks could be amplified by the media hubbub that surrounds him and  turn the primary process into a circus. 

“I think he’s going to do some damage,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist. “It may be minimal, but it will still be harmful.”

Trump’s political team pushed back strongly, saying such sentiments are symptomatic of establishment Republicans fearing an outsider.

“I’ve heard this 1,000 times before,” said Trump spokesman Corey Lewandowski. “They’re afraid of someone who isn’t beholden to the political elites, and they’ll do or say anything to stop someone with a record like Mr. Trump’s from running for office.”

As recently as 2012, eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney courted Trump and accepted his endorsement. This year, polls show Trump is the least popular potential Republican candidate.

According to a Washington Post/ABC News survey released last week, Trump’s favorability rating among Republican voters is underwater by an enormous 42 percentage points.

In addition, a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg politics poll released last month showed that a strong majority of Iowans, 58 percent, said they would never even consider voting for him.

Despite all that, Trump is currently in ninth place in the RealClearPolitics national average of polls, taking 4 percent backing. That level of support is especially critical in 2016, when the early debates will be capped at 10 candidates, based on national polling numbers.

“If he were in the debates, it would be must-see TV,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “It would also be tragic for the party, because we have a real chance to win the White House in 2016, and Republican primary voters want to hear more from others.”

Many Republicans are hungry to show off the depth of the field, and Trump could potentially deprive one of those candidates of a platform.

“That spot on the debate stage is precious real estate, so to allow an unserious candidate who has been attacking our candidates and has never been a solid Republican is deeply irresponsible,” said Mackowiak. “Trump has no business taking a minute away from George Pataki, or Bobby Jindal or anyone. It’s just another opportunity for him to say something that hurts the Republican Party.”

Trump currently leads former Texas Gov. Rick Perry; Ohio Gov. John Kasich; Santorum; businesswoman Carly Fiorina; Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMcConnell hopes Senate impeachment trial 'not too lengthy a process' Hillicon Valley: Progressives oppose funding bill over surveillance authority | Senators call for 5G security coordinator | Facebook gets questions over location tracking | Louisiana hit by ransomware attack Prisons chief: FBI investigating whether 'criminal enterprise' played role in Epstein death MORE (S.C.); Jindal, governor of Louisiana; and Pataki, a former New York governor, according to the RCP national average.

“If Mr. Trump announces, his polling numbers indicate he’ll be on the debate stage and the only one up there with real-world experience who has created tens of thousands of jobs,” said Lewandowski. “By any measure, he has been and will continue to be a serious candidate. These people are just looking for career politicians up there who will do what they’re told.”

Last week, Trump’s brash style and tendency to generate controversial headlines by attacking fellow conservatives was on full display.

First, Trump went on a tirade against right-wing columnist Charles Krauthammer. 

Krauthammer had drawn attention to the poll that showed a majority of voters  saying they would never consider casting a ballot for Trump. Trump responded by lashing out at Krauthammer over Twitter, calling him a “totally overrated clown,” a “dummy,” and “one of the worst and most boring political pundits on television.”

Over the weekend, Trump went after Bush and Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate passes legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters Senators voice support for Iran protesters but stop short of taking action McConnell urges Trump to voice support for Hong Kong protesters MORE (R-Fla.) on a stop in North Carolina. According to The  News & Observer, Trump accused both Republican presidential hopefuls of making “total ass[es]” out of themselves on whether they would have invaded Iraq.

Republicans fret that the harm caused by such antics will be amplified in a televised presidential debate.

“He has to understand that this isn’t ‘The Apprentice,’ this is a serious thing,” said O’Connell. “What’s going to happen when he goes after these guys? Is anything below the belt for him? Democrats are just going to be sitting there waiting to use some of this to their advantage.”

Virtually no one believes Trump will win the GOP nomination. But he might linger in the race nonetheless. He could easily self-fund a campaign far beyond the early-voting states. 

“He’s a headache Republicans will have to deal with, at least until he gets sick of running,” Bonjean said.