WASHINGTON — Ruptures that have threatened the Republican Party since Donald Trump’s ascendancy a year ago burst into full view Wednesday as the party grappled with the reality that he will be the GOP nominee for president.
The party once led by middle-of-the-road politicians Mitt Romney and John McCain was suddenly helmed by an entertainment mogul with a penchant for stream-of-consciousness policy declarations.
Lifelong Republicans openly declared they would not back Trump. Instead, they said they would write in someone else for president — with some even planning to vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“Hillary is not going to gaffe her way into a nuclear exchange with North Korea. Trump could,” said Fergus Cullen, New Hampshire’s former GOP chairman.
“It’s just going to be carnage,” he added, about this year’s election. “The party has collectively decided to commit political suicide for this cycle.”
Governor Charlie Baker, on the other hand, announced, “I’m not going to vote for Mr. Trump, and I sincerely doubt I’ll be voting for Hillary Clinton either.” [Story, B1.]
“I have concerns about Mr. Trump’s temperament and some of the things he’s said about women and about Muslims and about religious freedom -- I just can’t support,” he told reporters in Jamaica Plain. “At the same time, I do believe Secretary Clinton has a huge believability problem. And this makes this a very difficult election.”
“It’s disappointing,” he added. “I’ve certainly found this to be one of the most troubling election cycles across the board I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
After Trump won Indiana Tuesday and knocked Senator Ted Cruz out of the race, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus called for unity and urged Republicans to get behind Trump. But there was no clear movement for him Wednesday.
The two most powerful elected Republicans in Washington — Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan — remained silent, even after Ohio Governor John Kasich, the last Trump opponent, caved to the inevitable and dropped out late in the afternoon.
Senator Kelly Ayotte, who is in a tough reelection campaign in New Hampshire, reaffirmed through a spokeswoman that she would “support” the nominee, but in a semantic twist added she “isn’t planning to endorse anyone.”
Both of America’s major political parties are divided to historic degrees. The Republican contest in particular has been ravaged by personal attacks and verbal bombs. Now, as Trump and Clinton turn to the general election, they have large numbers of supporters who are motivated by antipathy toward the standard-bearer of the opposite party.
Republicans are facing an especially daunting choice: whom do they dislike more, Trump or likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton?
“It’s a matchup of bad choices and it’s up to voter to decide which is the least bad of the options. It’s a very unhappy choice,” said Ryan Williams, a longtime Republican and veteran on Romney’s campaigns.
“A lot of voters are thinking, ‘Out of 300 million people, these are the best we could come up with?’” he added. “It’s a poor reflection on the electoral process and how these parties pick nominees.”
A CNN poll released Wednesday showed Clinton with a 54 percent to 41 percent lead over Trump in a general election matchup. But 51 percent of those backing her said it comes more out of opposition to Trump. Likewise, 57 percent of those backing Trump said their support was driven by opposition to Clinton.
Both Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, and Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, are saddled with historically low approval ratings. In an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, Trump was viewed negatively by 65 percent of voters, while Clinton was viewed negatively by 56 percent.
That portends a mud-slinging general election. Get ready for six months of nastiness.
“The language of this election has already been so crass and inappropriate, it’s hard to believe it’ll get worse. It’s clearly sunk to a new low,” said former senator Judd Gregg, a Republican from New Hampshire who had endorsed Kasich.
He said he hoped that the general election debates, as they evolve, will focus more on substance than the flamboyant rhetoric that has to date dominated.
He predicted that by the fall, most likely supporters would align with their respective party’s nominee and a third party would not emerge.
The Clinton campaign, reveling in the GOP discord, on Wednesday distributed a list of about 40 Republicans distancing themselves from Trump.
“For the first time since turning 18, I will not vote for the Republican candidate for president,” wrote Dan McLaughlin, an editor at the conservative site RedState.
“I have officially deregistered as a Republican,” wrote Philip Klein, managing editor of the Washington Examiner.
“Mr. Trump’s relentless focus is on dividing Americans, and on tearing down rather than building back up this glorious nation,” wrote US Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska. “I can’t support Donald Trump.”
Some Republicans urged caution, saying that views on Trump could shift once he fully embraces the mantle of the party’s nominee.
“If the GOP needs anything it’s a little time-out to let all the emotions subside,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party. “Polls from beginning of time said Donald Trump was unpopular and unelectable. And today he’s our nominee. Our society is so instant gratification — we want it now. And I think we should really kind of let this settle in. ... Trump presents the party with a different opportunity and a much different campaign against Hillary Clinton.”
Trump on Wednesday began moving toward questions of how he will fund his campaign, indicating that he might begin accepting support from super PACs, which can take unlimited contributions.
“I’m going to be making a decision over the next week,” Trump said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “The question is, I do love self-funding.”
Trump has disparaged the “donor class,” consistently talking up his ability to finance the campaign himself without being beholden to his contributors. But most of Trump’s net worth is tied up in real estate, which could make it difficult to finance a campaign that is likely to exceed $1 billion.
“Do I want to sell a couple of buildings and self-fund?” Trump said. “I don’t know that I want to do that necessarily, but I really won’t be asking for money for myself, I’ll be asking [for] money for the party.”
Trump also began openly discussing his vice presidential selection process, saying he would turn toward an experienced politician.
“I have the business — let’s call it talents,” Trump said. “I think I’ll probably go the political route, somebody that can help me with legislation and somebody that can help me get things passed and somebody that’s been friends with the senators and the congressman and all.”
Victoria McGrane and Joshua Miller of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.