WASHINGTON — Donald Trump has proven to be the GOP's summer fling gone awry: fun at first, when there was no expectation of a commitment. But he's stuck around — long after the party establishment wishes he were gone.
Now, concerned about lasting damage to the party's image, some in the Republican establishment are plotting a full-scale attempt to torpedo his candidacy.
Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, on Monday filed a formal complaint with the New Hampshire secretary of state challenging Trump's place on the first-in-the-nation primary ballot, arguing in vain that the billionaire reality TV star did not provide proof he's a Republican.
Some Republican consultants are forming a group — Trump Card LLC — with the explicit goal of taking out the brash-talking political neophyte. And the conservative Club for Growth has run anti-Trump ads in Iowa.
"This is no longer a joke," said Cullen, who lost his bid before the state Ballot Law Commission to knock Trump off the ballot. "Donald Trump is a dangerous demagogue. He's doing damage to the Republican brand that will prevent us from running a competitive national election next year."
With less than three months before the nominating process begins, Trump is still leading in state and national polls, seeming to gain strength from his divisive rhetoric, rather than collapsing under it.
The concern, party leaders and strategists say, is not just winning the general election and reclaiming the White House. In a year when the GOP is hoping to maintain control of the Senate, party leaders are increasingly worried about the impact Trump's campaign could have on down-ballot candidates in purple states such as the reelection bids by Senators Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Rob Portman of Ohio.
"Kelly Ayotte is losing votes every day because of Donald Trump," Cullen said. "It's not like Passover where voters make a distinction between good Republicans and bad Republicans. They will throw them all out. Or they will reasonably ask, 'Why didn't you stand up to him? Was your silence consent?' "
Asked to comment on the threat Trump presents to Ayotte, her campaign manager, Jon Kohan, said simply, "We're looking forward to supporting the Republican nominee and are confident that any one of the possible candidates will beat Hillary Clinton."
Trump, whose campaign did not respond to requests for comment, has recently threatened to run a third-party campaign if he thinks that the Republican Party is not treating him "fairly." That would go against a pledge he signed in September to support whoever wins the Republican nomination.
Many party leaders fear that Trump's threats to corral and deport undocumented immigrants and his vows to spy on American Muslims have especially alienated minority voters — a critical demographic the GOP must woo to remain competitive, according to a Republican National Committee post-mortem of the 2012 election after Mitt Romney lost.
"The only group he hasn't alienated so far is grumpy middle-aged white men, and there aren't enough grumpy middle-aged white men to win an election," Cullen said.
Katie Packer Gage, a partner with Burning Glass Consulting, a Washington-based political firm that focuses on improving Republican messaging to women, said there's a misconception among the public that the majority of Republicans agree with Trump.
"The longer he's in the race and the longer he is leading, the more his brand damages our party," she said.
Some of Trump's GOP primary opponents are joining the party establishment in stepping up their attacks on Trump.
A super PAC supporting Ohio Governor John Kasich has committed $2.5 million in ads against Trump in New Hampshire, using his own words against him — including a clip of him saying that if his daughter weren't his daughter, he'd want to date her.
Matt David, chief strategist for New Day For America, the Kasich super PAC, said he thinks the party has gained some ground in fighting back against the idea that the GOP is "just an old, white party," but a Trump nomination would "set the party back another decade."
Such a nomination, many party leaders worry, would essentially hand the White House to Clinton, with most national polls showing that she has a slight edge over Trump. To keep that from happening, some GOP strategists and major donors are starting to band together as well as form separate groups to defeat Trump, said Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant in Florida who is working for a super PAC supporting Senator Marco Rubio.
"They are certainly all looking at the existential risk of Donald Trump destroying the Republican Party," said Wilson, who is engaging in a number of "stealth" conversations with people about strategy. "All these people spent months and months thinking he's going to fade, hoping he would be a self-limiting problem and take care of himself."
But the field is so large and fractured — with 14 candidates remaining — that it's been impossible for the middle to coalesce around anyone. Trump shouts the loudest, garners the most media attention, and maintains his lead in polls.
Wilson likened a Trump nomination to a "hangover and then herpes" for the GOP.
"It's like the classic consequences of bad planning and one night stands. It's going to be something we pay for for a long time," he said. "He's the guy you want to go out and drink tequila shots with all night long and then you wake up the next day and say,
'Oh man, that hurt. What the hell?' "
But other Republican operatives are not so quick to dismiss Trump.
Eric Fehrnstrom, a GOP political consultant and former top Romney aide, said Trump is not the problem — other candidates are.
"These Republican candidates haven't figured out a successful way to disqualify Trump," Fehrnstrom said. "Attacking him from the left is a losing strategy in our primary."
While Trump may turn Latino and black voters away from the GOP, he may expand the party's appeal to disenfranchised blue-collar voters, including independents and Democrats, said Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for George W. Bush who helped write the party's growth plan after the 2012 campaign.
Should Trump win the nomination, Fleischer said, a coalition of traditional GOP voters plus conservative Democrats could be enough to hand Trump victories in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania — three states where he's either leading Clinton in head-to-head matchups or statistically tied.
Still, he predicted the Republican Party will go into a "full-scale panic and meltdown" if Trump wins either Iowa or New Hampshire — or, if the polls hold, both.
"He will totally rewrite what the Republican brand is if he is the nominee," Fleischer said.
Henry Barbour, a Mississippi GOP strategist who also had a hand in the party's plan to increase support among Latino and African-American voters, called efforts to thwart Trump's candidacy "ill-advised."
"Look, you can't peel voters off him with a crowbar," Barbour said. "If someone wants to spend money and do that, they might as well take it and throw if off a tall building. If anyone's going to stop Donald Trump, it's going to be Donald Trump — not some super PAC."