An effort by prominent conservatives to recruit a third party candidate to run against Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Biden celebrates start of Hanukkah Fauci says lies, threats are 'noise' MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCountering the ongoing Republican delusion Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future MORE is fizzling out.
A serious third party run would cost millions, and GOP donors have so far been reluctant to embrace a bid.
No major political star has stepped forward publicly so far to be a third-party candidate either, and possible recruits, such as Mitt Romney and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), have ruled out doing so.
Polls also indicate that Republicans around the country are coming around to Trump now he's their presumptive nominee. A Public Policy Polling survey found Republicans are as unified around Trump as Democrats are around Clinton, with 72 percent or Republicans saying they are comfortable with him as their nominee.
Critics of Trump say the businessman’s fast-approaching victory in the primary contest — every other Republican candidate has now dropped out — also gives weight to arguments that those pushing a third-party effort are effectively ignoring GOP voters.
“I think it’s offensive to the people who have voted,” said former Romney fundraiser Lisa Spies. “They have chosen Donald Trump.
“That doesn’t mean we have to like him,” Spies added. “That doesn’t mean everybody in the party has to fall in behind him. But the voters have chosen a candidate and that means we have to respect that, period.”
While Romney and the Bush family have yet to back Trump, Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanNo time for the timid: The dual threats of progressives and Trump Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Cheney takes shot at Trump: 'I like Republican presidents who win re-election' MORE’s (R-Wis.) actions on Thursday signaled the GOP is uniting around its candidate.
While Ryan stopped short of an endorsement after a meeting with the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, he sounded like a politician getting on board the Trump train in describing a “very encouraging” meeting.
Erick Erickson, the influential conservative pundit who founded RedState.com, believes that if no outside candidate emerges by the end of May, then the third party movement is as good as dead.
“The reason it has to be by the end of May is because once June starts the Democrat air war begins and a lot of conversation is going to begin to be drowned out,” said Erickson, who is a leading figure in the conservative movement to draft a third party candidate.
Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, another prominent face in the third-party push, sounded disappointment with Trump’s meetings with Ryan and other Republicans on Thursday.
“It is depressing as a Republican and a conservative to see Donald Trump making this triumphal procession...through Washington with the Republican leadership of the Republican National Committee and the House and Senate basically capitulating to him,” he said Thursday on MSNBC.
“Unification means capitulation,” Kristol added.
Erickson said his ad-hoc group exploring third-party options estimates it would cost at least $250 million to run a campaign.
It’s not just advertising that needs to be bought. Ballot access in all 50 states would likely require costly court action given that some deadlines, including Texas’s, have already passed.
Billionaire GOP donors on record as opposing Trump are skeptical at best about such an effort.
Hedge fund manager Paul Singer and the Ricketts family – who combined have spent at least $7 million opposing Trump – have told associates that they are theoretically open to the idea of funding a third party bid.
But privately, several GOP fundraising sources in interviews with The Hill scoffed at the idea of a third party candidate as a fevered dream of elite conservatives who are hopelessly out of touch.
Many of these donors aren’t warming to Trump, but believe the third party recruitment is an exercise in pure fantasy.
“The choice between Trump and Hillary is like choosing what type of venereal disease you would be comfortable contracting,” said a conservative donor who contributed to the biggest anti-Trump group, Our Principles PAC.
Though he “loathes” both Trump and Clinton, the donor said it was too late to launch a third party bid unless “Romney got in.”
That points to a real problem for those backing a third-party bid. They can’t get anyone to run.
“The hang up,” said Erickson, “is the candidate.”
Erickson, who stresses that these are his personal views and not those of the adhoc third party group, says he thinks that at this late hour, anti-Trump Republicans have a better shot at stopping the presumptive nominee by convincing delegates at the July Convention to unbind themselves and to vote for candidates other than Trump.
Such a scenario, however, seems to be the longest of long shots.
Polling is still being done to convince donors and potential candidates that a third party bid could succeed.
And a shortlist has drawn up of at least three “political figures” who are “still willing to consider it if everything lines up,” Erickson said.
The shortlist includes one currently elected official and two retired politicians, Erickson said.
Quin Hillyer, another leading conservative in the “Never Trump and Never Hillary” movement, told The Hill he remained “absolutely convinced” that the third party candidacy will happen.
While a handful of polls this week pointed to a possible close race between Clinton and Trump, many “never Trump” Republicans believe he will be a disaster in November would could do lasting damage to the party.
“I also wouldn’t rule out the idea that somebody might approach Mattis again,” Hillyer said, referencing retired Marine Gen. James Mathis, who has declined overtures to run.
Perhaps the most ominous sign for the third party movement occurred at a Washington dinner last Thursday evening.
More than 100 guests, including a number of prominent conservatives, gathered at The Fairmont, a tony hotel, for an award gala for American Friends of the Hebrew University.
Romney spoke. And so did Kristol, who “kept making jokes” about how he was trying to recruit the 2012 Republican nominee to run a third party bid against Clinton and Trump, a source who attended told The Hill.
“Bill kept bringing it up,” the source said.
“Everyone was laughing.”