HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — The country’s top Republicans gathered last week at a posh resort overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, dining at restaurants where porterhouse steaks go for $105 and sipping martinis in a hotel atrium filled with palm trees and gurgling fountains.
Outwardly, then, it seemed like business as usual for the power brokers and influentials of the Republican National Committee attending their spring meeting. It was anything but.
Hurricane season is upon the GOP, with the old order at risk of being swept away as the concluding round of state primaries looms. There were clear signs here that elements of the party elite are starting to buckle under the pressure.
Many are beginning to adapt to the notion — preposterous not so long ago — that Donald Trump will probably be their presidential nominee, the face of the party in 2016, and that continued efforts by the party establishment to sabotage his campaign or block him at the convention may not only be futile but also counterproductive and ultimately bad for the party.
Party committee members, in nearly two dozen interviews, said they still have serious doubts about the professionalism and tone of Trump’s campaign and fretted about his ability to beat the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. But almost none of the GOP leaders from around the country said they were still trying to block Trump from rising to the top at the Cleveland convention in July.
“There are some people who probably didn’t give him a lot of chance at the beginning,” said George Leing, a committeeman from Colorado. “But he’s certainly proven to have resiliency. He’s obviously the leader right now.”
“He is going to be the nominee,” said one longtime establishment Republican who previously worked for a rival campaign but wasn’t ready to put his name to that statement.
Senator Ted Cruz and Governor John Kasich made personal appeals to the committee members over the course of the three-day conference, and the nominating contest is far from over. Trump could still fall short of the 1,237 delegates he needs, triggering a contested convention.
But at the same time an alliance of grudging realists appears to be forming. Republican insiders are settling on something approaching acquiescence to the billionaire’s insurgency.
Even while Trump notably did not join his rivals in making an appearance at the event, he dispatched advisers to court the party officials he has lampooned during his front-running rocket ride, the same GOP grandees that he accuses of overseeing a “rigged’’ nominating system.
“People are warming to the idea,” said Don McGahn, a party insider and top Washington election lawyer who is advising Trump, as he roamed the hallways of the Diplomat Resort & Spa. Ada Fisher, a committeewoman from North Carolina who went public with her support for the New York businessman after her state’s primary, wears a Trump pin on her shirt.
“I like Donald Trump,” she said. “Donald Trump defies traditional Republican stereotypes. . . . He will win. He will bring change to America.”
Others gave Trump some credit for identifying and appealing to populist undercurrents in the angry conservative base that candidates like establishment favorite Jeb Bush missed.
“Here’s a guy who had no political background. And he’s about to become perhaps the nominee of the party,” said Ron Kaufman, the Massachusetts committeeman. “He’s a very savvy guy. Here’s the thing about Trump: He understands what a lot of people don’t understand, about where the country is and why they’re angry and why they’re upset.”
Because of party rules and Trump’s decisive victory in the Massachusetts primary, Kaufman — who often sports boots given to him by George H.W. Bush and who is a longtime confidant to Mitt Romney — will be a Trump delegate in July.
Committee controls rules
The RNC’s spring meeting featured more than group soul-searching. It dwelt on detailed preparation for the July convention and a potentially historic showdown. Committee members made clear they still control the arcane rules that will be instrumental in blessing, or thwarting, a Trump nomination.
Bruce Ash, a national committeeman from Arizona and the chairman of the rules committee, banged the gavel several times, calling the meeting to order. A prayer was offered: “As we come together to deliberate the rules of our party . . . trust that in all of this, Lord, you are leading and guiding us.”
For nearly an hour, the group argued over which set of parliamentary procedures should be used to govern the convention. One side wanted Robert’s Rules of Order (although there was brief protest over which edition, 11 or 12, would be used). The other wanted to continue using the same rules that govern the House of Representatives.
It sounds like a small procedural thing, but it is critical to control of the convention process and perhaps its outcome.
Solomon Yue, an Oregon committee member who proposed the amendment advocating Robert’s Rules, said he worried that under the House rules the party establishment could more easily nominate a fourth candidate, a so-called white knight who is not one of the three who remain in the race.
Yue’s proposal was decisively rejected by a voice vote, allowing the party to maintain more control during the convention.
As that debate took place, a couple of Trump supporters, proud to have helped stoke his brush-fire candidacy, stood vigil outside the hotel. Two men who skipped work had Trump signs, Trump hats, Trump shirts. They waved American flags as passing motorists tooted their horns. They are appalled at party leaders who still don’t get what Trump is about.
“It seems like they don’t understand what the people want,” said Arisley Travieso, a 36-year-old Cuban-American from West Palm Beach. “They either don’t understand — or they don’t care. They’re disconnected. They’re going to lose everything. The whole thing is going to burn down if they keep this up.”
In candidate’s shadow
A glass tower looms over the pristine beach just seven doors down from the resort where RNC members hobnobbed. A giant T festoons the building, and another is emblazoned on the parking garage.
It’s a 41-story, Trump-developed complex with 200 residences that offer an oceanfront pool deck, a spa, and a cigar lounge. The RNC meetings were thus taking place in Trump’s shadow, a reminder of the incongruous nature of the Trump candidacy, with its blend of wealthy elitism and populist fury directed at the establishment.
Trump has moved into a new phase of his campaign in which he is trying to navigate that dichotomy and make the transition from outsider to party leader, showing the GOP leaders that he is capable of playing a grown-up role.
On Thursday at the Republican National Committee meetings, members packed into a third-floor corner room with views of the Atlantic Ocean. An open bar was set up. A tray of refreshments — overflowing with shrimp, oysters, and crab legs — was so heavy it required two waiters to lug it into the room.
Team Trump had arrived.
Trump’s new senior adviser, veteran political consultant Paul Manafort, had spent the day roaming around the hotel toting a briefcase bearing his initials as he held one-on-one meetings. He, along with former RNC political director Rick Wiley, have been acting as emissaries sent by Trump to try to persuade establishment Republicans to get aboard with the insurgent candidate.
For about an hour, Manafort and Wiley — who were also joined by former candidate and Trump backer Ben Carson — explained in the closed-door meeting how Trump is evolving as a candidate, according to interviews with members who attended the session.
They started by reassuring members that they wanted to work with the RNC, not against it. As part of a PowerPoint presentation, they displayed a map of bellwether states that they believe Trump can carry in the fall election. Rather than just six or so swing states, they said, Trump would turn more than a dozen states into competitive races in the general election against the Democratic nominee.
His advisers believe that Rust Belt states, along with much of New England, would be receptive to the blue-collar message Trump has carried.
Some members who have been deeply skeptical of Trump said they were encouraged.
“It was reassuring to a lot of members just to see that they’re broadening their base, they’re announcing more staff, and they’re bringing in folks that we know,” said Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire committeeman and John McCain confidant.
“One of the great things about a Trump candidacy is he has shown an appeal to a lot of voters that we haven’t been able to compete for in the last couple of elections,” he added.
“He has done a better job giving voice to the angst and the anger the average guy feels about the political system not working and the economy not working,’’ Duprey said. “And people laughed at that at first. But it’s pretty hard to argue with the results he’s gotten.”
Not everyone is convinced. While impressed with his ballot-box showing, and some of his recent hires, many of those involved in Republican politics for decades are still waiting to see more from Trump himself.
“Every time I see him start to be presidential, he just does something that doesn’t make sense,” said Jonathan Barnett, a committeeman from Arkansas, citing “critical errors.’’
“He just needs to keep it on the upbeat. Him being critical of the RNC probably wasn’t a real smart move on his part,” he added. “If he wins this thing, he’ll figure out he needs us more than we need him.’’
But several members have started to argue that Trump’s problems are easier to fix than Hillary Clinton’s. They believe that voters are disenchanted by Clinton, and no longer trust her, while Trump just needs a little polish.
“He’s a product unfinished,” said Shawn Steel, a committeeman from California who remained unconvinced. “He’s really raw at this. And he can grow into it — or not.”
“My hope is that he adapts, grows, reaches out, and acts presidential. My fear is that he loses. Eighty percent of what I’m looking for is someone who can take us over the finish line.”
A well-financed “Never Trump” group is still working to stop Trump at all costs. One of its founders, Katie Packer, came on Friday to plead with members to save the party by dumping Trump. But most RNC members are now emphasizing party unity — which increasingly sounds like code for getting behind Trump in the end.
“Whoever the nominee is, I’ll support them 100 percent,” said Dan Welch, chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party. “Even though Trump isn’t typical, if it’s Trump, we’ll support him.”
On Friday, during a large gathering, RNC chairman Reince Priebus — who has both received Trump’s wrath and has placed congratulatory phone calls after big victories — had a similar message.
“Politics is a team sport,” he said from the stage. “And we can’t win unless we rally around whoever becomes our nominee.”
Many unknowns remain
As Republicans prepare for their next meeting, at the convention in Cleveland, a lengthy list of unknowns still remain. Some are excited about a once-in-a-generation contested convention (“It’s like Halley’s Comet!” said one member) while others dread an unpredictable spectacle playing out on prime-time television.
Typically by now, the RNC and the presumptive nominee are well on the way toward setting up a joint fund-raising account, which helps the nominee with the general election. But Trump has railed against “the donor class,” and he has bragged about not raising money. Some donors are leery of Trump and want to channel support exclusively to the GOP fight to maintain control of Congress.
Some longtime party members also worry about the damage to the Republican brand.
“Certainly he will hurt us with millennials. It will take a lot of work to overcome that and that is not trivial,” said Henry Barbour, a committeeman from Mississippi. “If you’re 25 years old and your impression of the Republican Party is what Donald Trump says it is — and he doesn’t improve — well, we’re going to have trouble with those voters and we’re going to have to do a lot of work with them.”
Republican party officials are sensitive about any potential changes in their rules. Above all, they want the process to seem fair, particularly after Trump’s harsh criticism.
Others are concerned about the problems Trump creates for US senate candidates, particularly in states such as New Hampshire, Illinois, and Ohio.
“People are trying to be calm,” said Luis Fortuño, a former governor of Puerto Rico and a Washington insider. “We have concerns about down ballot, what happens. If we have a bloodbath in Cleveland — which there’s no reason for it, really — it would be terrible.
“People are trying to act maturely to steer the party in the right direction, which is a fair and open process,’’ he said. “And let the chips fall where they may.”