WASHINGTON — Republicans have tried to derail Donald Trump by spending millions on TV ads pointing to his insensitive comments about women. They have attempted to defeat him in debates, called on him to release his tax returns, even ridiculed the size of his hands.
Nothing has worked.
Now they are trying the ultimate Hail Mary pass: A group of conservatives is discussing a third-party alternative, hoping for someone — anyone — to emerge to prevent Trump from becoming president. It is a move that is unheard-of in a party that normally rallies behind its presumptive nominee, and it illustrates just how desperate some Republicans are, nearly a week after Trump knocked his last challenger from the race.
The effort is seen by many party leaders — including House Speaker Paul Ryan —
“To those Trumpsters who are criticizing us and saying we have a duty to vote for the Republican Party, I would say, at what cost?” said Deborah DeMoss Fonseca, spokeswoman for Conservatives Against Trump, the group mounting an independent candidacy. “Everyone associated with us has said we will not vote for Trump, we will not vote for Hillary, but we will vote. And we would like to have an alternative instead of having everyone just writing in their spouses or themselves.”
Speculation flared late last week that Mitt Romney might yet jump into the race, after the Washington Post reported that the 2012 GOP nominee met with conservative commentator William Kristol in Washington on Thursday. But close associates of the former Massachusetts governor said they had no indication that he has changed his mind about getting in the race, and Kristol on Monday downplayed the meeting’s significance.
“It was a general catch-up chat, prior to a big dinner at which we were both speaking that night,” he said in a statement to the Globe. “I’m not going to categorize what Governor Romney said in private, of course. But for my part I repeated my conviction (which Governor Romney has publicly expressed as well) that the country deserves better than a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.”
Romney, who has declined recent requests for interviews, is worried about the state of the party and remains adamantly opposed to Trump, according to his associates. But they insist he is also not laying plans to get into the race himself. And any effort to mount a third-party bid was dealt a setback on Monday when Ryan — who had gone on television to say he wasn’t ready to back Trump — said any such effort was self-destructive.
Launching a third-party bid “would be a disaster for our party,” Ryan said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, his home-state paper. “I have communicated that to plenty of people.”
Conservatives Against Trump, who form the core of the #NeverTrump movement, is nevertheless pushing ahead. DeMoss Fonseca said a group of about 50 members have been quietly strategizing in person, over phone conferences, and via e-mails for close to two months but have grown much more prominent in recent days as Trump emerged as the all-but-certain nominee.
In addition to Kristol, the loosely organized group includes conservative writer Erick Erickson, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Bill Wichterman, a former aide to former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican.
In their bid to find an alternative, the group has sought out retired generals, businessmen, and former political candidates, including younger Republican leaders. That search led to Romney last week, just one of many being courted.
“There’s a concerted effort to find someone of sufficient weight and substance and conservatism who can be an alternative,” said DeMoss Fonseca. “This is like the thousand-year flood, something we have never witnessed before.”
Christine Matthews, a Republican strategist based in Alexandria, Va., called the continued scramble to mount a third-party candidacy “hopeful, possibly magical thinking” — even as she said she would support such a candidate.
“If it’s someone like Mitch Daniels, I would drop everything and help with that,” said Matthews, adding that perhaps there could be a social media-inspired effort to draft Daniels, president of Purdue University and a former Indiana governor. “Trump is just not somebody I can support.”
Time is running out for conservatives to find their savior. Filing deadlines to get on state ballots for the general election are looming — and in some cases already past. The deadline to petition to get on the ballot in Texas, with its 38 electoral votes, was Monday.
“Not only is it late in the game, but for what purpose?” said Gary Nordlinger, a Democratic political consultant who teaches at George Washington University. “If you do that, you’re going to guarantee the election to Hillary Clinton.”
But even if a third-party candidate makes it easier for Clinton, some Republicans have a more dire scenario in mind: Trump as president for four or eight years. That, they believe, could do even more lasting damage to their party.
“Having Trump as the de-facto standard bearer for conservatives conceivably could do harm to the Republican party for generations,” said Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster who worked on Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign.
Some Trump critics have lined up — albeit reluctantly — behind the billionaire in the week since he effectively clinched the nomination. Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican who is in a tough reelection fight, said she will “support” Trump but not endorse him.
Several Republicans echoed Ryan’s comments that a third-party bid would further tear the party apart.
“There are people who are playing hard to get who haven’t come around yet. Trump will have to make a deal with them somehow and become a better or more acceptable candidate,” said Juliana Bergeron, a Republican national committeewoman from New Hampshire.
Bergeron said she is comfortable supporting Trump because she has met with the real estate mogul four times and found him to be “much more gracious, much more toned down, very polite” than he has been at his rallies or in media interviews.
Beverly Bruce, another prominent New Hampshire Republican, said disgruntled Republicans should quit wasting time with talk of a third-party run and get behind Trump, as she has resigned herself to doing, even though she will not campaign for Trump nor raise money for him.
“The American people have spoken and we just have to go with whoever our nominee is,” Bruce said. “I am not a Trump supporter but I will vote for our Republican nominee. My view is, anybody but Hillary. It’s unfortunate that I’m voting against somebody, not for somebody.”