The scenario Karl Rove outlined was bleak.
Addressing a luncheon of Republican governors and donors in Washington on Feb. 19, he warned that Donald Trump’s increasingly likely nomination would be catastrophic, dooming the party in November. But Rove, the master strategist of George W. Bush’s campaigns, insisted it was not too late for them to stop Trump, according to three people present.
At a meeting of Republican governors the next morning, Paul R. LePage of Maine called for action. Seated at a long boardroom table at the Willard Hotel, he erupted in frustration over the state of the 2016 race, saying Trump’s nomination would deeply wound the Republican Party. LePage urged the governors to draft an open letter “to the people,” disavowing Trump and his divisive brand of politics.
The suggestion was not taken up. Since then, Trump has only gotten stronger, winning two more state contests and collecting the endorsement of Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.
In public, there were calls for the party to unite behind a single candidate. In dozens of interviews, elected officials, political strategists and donors described a frantic, last-ditch campaign to block Trump — and the agonizing reasons that many of them have become convinced it will fail. Behind the scenes, a desperate mission to save the party sputtered and stalled at every turn.
Efforts to unite warring candidates behind one failed spectacularly: An overture from Sen. Marco Rubio to Christie angered and insulted the governor. An unsubtle appeal from Mitt Romney to John Kasich, about the party’s need to consolidate behind one rival to Trump, fell on deaf ears.
At least two campaigns have drafted plans to overtake Trump in a brokered convention, and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has laid out a plan that would have lawmakers break with Trump explicitly in a general election.
Despite all the forces arrayed against Trump, the interviews show, the party has been gripped by a nearly incapacitating leadership vacuum and a paralytic sense of indecision and despair, as he has won smashing victories in South Carolina and Nevada. Donors have dreaded the consequences of clashing with Trump directly. Elected officials have balked at attacking him out of concern that they might unintentionally fuel his populist revolt. And Republicans have lacked someone from outside the presidential race who could help set the terms of debate from afar.
The endorsement by Christie, a not unblemished but still highly regarded figure within the party’s elite — he is a former chairman of the Republican Governors Association — landed Friday with crippling force. It was by far the most important defection to Trump’s insurgency: Christie may give cover to other Republicans tempted to join Trump rather than trying to beat him. Not just the Stop Trump forces seemed in peril, but also the traditional party establishment itself.
Should Trump clinch the presidential nomination, it would represent a rout of historic proportions for the institutional Republican Party, and could set off an internal rift unseen in either party for a half-century, since white Southerners abandoned the Democratic Party en masse during the civil rights movement.
Former Gov. Michael O. Leavitt of Utah, a top adviser to Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said the party was unable to come up with a united front to quash Trump’s campaign.
“There is no mechanism,” Leavitt said. “There is no smoke-filled room. If there is, I’ve never seen it, nor do I know anyone who has. This is going to play out in the way that it will.”
Republicans have ruefully acknowledged that they came to this dire pass in no small part because of their own passivity. There were ample opportunities to battle Trump earlier; more than one plan was drawn up only to be rejected. Rivals who attacked him early, like Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal, the former governors of Texas and Louisiana, received little backup and quickly faded.
Late in the fall, strategists Alex Castellanos and Gail Gitcho, both presidential campaign veterans, reached out to dozens of the party’s leading donors, including casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and hedge-fund manager Paul Singer, with a plan to create a super PAC that would take down Trump. In a confidential memo, the strategists laid out the mission of a group they called “ProtectUS.”
“We want voters to imagine Donald Trump in the Big Chair in the Oval Office, with responsibilities for worldwide confrontation at his fingertips,” they wrote in the previously unreported memo. Castellanos even produced ads portraying Trump as unfit for the presidency, according to people who saw them and who, along with many of those interviewed, insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations.
The two strategists, who declined to comment, proposed to attack Trump in New Hampshire over his business failures and past liberal positions, and emphasized the extreme urgency of their project. A Trump nomination would not only cause Republicans to lose the presidency, they wrote, “but we also lose the Senate, competitive gubernatorial elections and moderate House Republicans.”
No major donors committed to the project, and it was abandoned. No other sustained Stop Trump effort sprang up in its place.
Resistance to Trump still runs deep. The party’s biggest benefactors remain totally opposed to him. At a recent presentation hosted by billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch, the country’s most prolific conservative donors, their political advisers characterized Trump’s record as utterly unacceptable, and highlighted his support for government-funded business subsidies and government-backed health care, according to people who attended.
But the Kochs, like Adelson, have shown no appetite to intervene directly in the primary with decisive force.
The American Future Fund, a conservative group that does not disclose its donors, announced plans Friday to run ads blasting Trump for his role in an educational company that is alleged to have defrauded students. But there is only limited time for the commercials to sink in before some of the country’s biggest states award their delegates in early March.
Trump’s challengers are staking their hopes on a set of guerrilla tactics and long-shot possibilities, racing to line up mainstream voters and interest groups against his increasingly formidable campaign. Donors and elected leaders have begun to rouse themselves for the fight, but perhaps too late.
Two of Trump’s opponents have openly acknowledged that they may have to wrest the Republican nomination from him in a deadlocked convention.
Speaking to political donors in Manhattan on Wednesday evening, Rubio’s campaign manager, Terry Sullivan, noted that most delegates are bound to a candidate only on the first ballot. Many of them, moreover, are likely to be party regulars who may not support Trump over multiple rounds of balloting, he added, according to a person present for Sullivan’s presentation, which was first reported by CNN.
Advisers to Kasich, the Ohio governor, have told potential supporters that his strategy boils down to a convention battle. Judd Gregg, a former New Hampshire senator who had endorsed Jeb Bush, said Kasich’s emissaries had sketched an outcome in which Kasich “probably ends up with the second-highest delegate count going into the convention” and digs in there to compete with Trump.
Several senior Republicans, including Romney, have made direct appeals to Kasich to gauge his willingness to stand down and allow the party to unify behind another candidate. But Kasich has told at least one person that his plan is to win the Ohio primary on March 15 and gather the party behind his campaign if Rubio loses in Florida, his home state, on the same day.
In Washington, Kasich’s persistence in the race has become a source of frustration. At Senate luncheons Wednesday and Thursday, Republican lawmakers vented about Kasich’s intransigence, calling it selfishness.
One senior Republican senator, noting that Kasich has truly contested only one of the first four states, complained: “He’s just flailing his arms around and having a wonderful time going around the country, and it just drives me up the wall.”
McConnell was especially vocal, describing Kasich’s persistence as irrational because he has no plausible path to the nomination, several senators said.
While still hopeful that Rubio might prevail, McConnell has begun preparing senators for the prospect of a Trump nomination, assuring them that, if it threatened to harm them in the general election, they could run negative ads about Trump to create space between him and Republican senators seeking re-election. McConnell has raised the possibility of treating Trump’s loss as a given and describing a Republican Senate to voters as a necessary check on a President Hillary Clinton, according to senators at the lunches.
He has reminded colleagues of his own 1996 re-election campaign, when he won comfortably amid President Bill Clinton’s easy re-election. Of Trump, McConnell has said, “We’ll drop him like a hot rock,” according to his colleagues.
There is still hope that Rubio might be able to unite much of the party and slow Trump’s advance in a series of big-state primaries in March, and a host of top elected officials endorsed him over the last week. But Rubio has struggled to sideline Kasich and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is running a dogged campaign on the right. He has also been unable to win over several of his former rivals who might help consolidate the Republican establishment more squarely behind him.
Rubio showed a lack of finesse in dealing with his fallen rivals’ injured egos.
Christie had attacked Rubio contemptuously in New Hampshire, calling him shallow and scripted, and humiliating him in a debate. Nevertheless, Rubio made a tentative overture to Christie after his withdrawal from the presidential race. He left the governor a voice mail message, seeking Christie’s support and assuring him that he had a bright future in public service, according to people who have heard Christie’s characterization of the message.
Christie, 53, took the message as deeply disrespectful and patronizing, questioning why “a 44-year-old” was telling him about his future, said people who described his reaction on the condition of anonymity. Further efforts to connect the two never yielded a direct conversation.
Trump, by contrast, made frequent calls to Christie once he dropped out, a person close to the governor said. After the two met at Trump Tower on Thursday with their wives, Christie flew to Texas and emerged Friday to back Trump and mock Rubio as a desperate candidate near the end of a losing campaign.
Efforts to reconcile Rubio and Bush, a former governor of Florida, have been scarcely more successful, dating to before the South Carolina primary, when Rove reached out to their aides to broker a cease-fire, according to Republicans briefed on the conversations. It did not last.
Bush has been nearly silent since quitting the race Feb. 20, playing golf with his son Jeb Jr. in Miami and turning to the task of thank-you notes. In a Wednesday conference call with supporters, he did not express a preference among the remaining contenders. When Rubio called him Monday, their conversation did not last long, two people briefed on it said, and Rubio did not ask for his endorsement.
“There’s this desire, verging on panic, to consolidate the field,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a former supporter of Bush. “But I don’t see any movement at all.”
Rubio’s advisers were also thwarted in their efforts to secure an endorsement from Romney, whom they lobbied strenuously after the Feb. 20 South Carolina primary.
Romney had been eager to tilt the race, and even called Christie after he ended his campaign to vent about Trump and say he must be stopped. On the night of the primary, Romney was close to endorsing Rubio himself, people familiar with his deliberations said.
Yet Romney pulled back, instead telling advisers that he would take on Trump directly.
After a Tuesday night dinner with former campaign aides, during which he expressed a sense of horror at the Republican race, Romney made a blunt demand Wednesday on Fox News: Trump must release his tax returns to prove he was not concealing a “bombshell” political vulnerability.
Trump responded only with casual derision, dismissing Romney on Twitter as “one of the dumbest and worst candidates in the history of Republican politics.”
Romney is expected to withhold his support before the voting this week on the Super Tuesday, but some of his allies have urged him to endorse Rubio before Michigan and Idaho vote March 8. Romney grew up in Michigan, and many Idahoans are fellow Mormons.
But already, a handful of senior party leaders have struck a conciliatory tone toward Trump. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House majority leader, said on television that he believed he could work with him as president. Many in the party acknowledged a growing mood of resignation.
Fred Malek, finance chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said the party’s mainstream had simply run up against the limits of its influence.
“There’s no single leader and no single institution that can bring a diverse group called the Republican Party together, behind a single candidate,” Malek said. “It just doesn’t exist.”
On Friday, a few hours after Christie endorsed him, Trump collected support from a second governor, who in a radio interview said Trump could be “one of the greatest presidents.”
That governor was Paul LePage.