A secretive group of Republican operatives and conservative leaders convened Thursday morning for more than three hours to discuss ways to unite the right against Donald Trump, with a presentation about the feasibility of mounting a third-party challenge as well as extensive deliberations about whether a coalition of anti-Trump forces could prevent the billionaire mogul from securing the party's presidential nomination at the July convention in Cleveland.
"It's certainly not too late," Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said as he left the session. "You could get another party on the ballot. A candidate could be picked as late as August. … It would have to be a movement conservative.”"
"I was there to listen," Franks, a supporter of Trump rival Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), added. "I am worried about the kind of damage that Trump could cause to our party. … As a conservative, I can’t trust Donald Trump to do the right thing. However, I can trust Mrs. Clinton to do the exact wrong thing. Therefore, if it comes down to a one-on-one contest, I would vote for Trump."
Franks repeatedly declined to name who was floated as a potential standard-bearer for a third-party conservative bid.
A second attendee, requesting anonymity to discuss private conversations, said Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska was one name mentioned as a possible late-entry contender who conservatives could rally around.
A spokesman for Sasse said he did not send a representative to the meeting.
In a statement, the senator said he would not run: “Absolutely not. I’ve got three little kids and the only callings that I want: raising them and serving Nebraskans. No way.”
Per three people familiar with the talks, the mood of the room was muted and downbeat. Attendees voiced frustration with the lack of coordination so far and wondered aloud whether Trump could be halted. The third-party scenario drew intense interest, but it was also acknowledged that it would be logistically and financially difficult with few high-profile politicians willing to take the political risk that such a run would entail.
Instead, a bloc of participants argued that the best option may be working in upcoming primaries to boost Cruz and prevent Trump from securing a majority of delegates. A convention standoff would be the culmination of those efforts, the people said.
"I support Ted Cruz," said Mike Farris, an influential Virginia conservative, as he stepped onto 17th Street NW shortly before noon Thursday, waving off questions from reporters.
The meeting, a breakfast of more than two dozen people held at the Army and Navy Club in Washington, was hosted by longtime conservative activists Bill Wichterman and Bob Fischer. Popular right-wing radio host Erick Erickson, another organizer of the gathering, did not attend due to illness but participated by phone, as did many other conservatives from around the country.
In a blog post on the Resurgent, a conservative website, later Thursday, Erickson published a statement on behalf of the assembled group.
“We call for a unity ticket that unites the Republican Party. If that unity ticket is unable to get 1,237 delegates prior to the convention, we recognize that it took Abraham Lincoln three ballots at the Republican convention in 1860 to become the party’s nominee and if it is good enough for Lincoln, that process should be good enough for all the candidates without threats of riots,” the statement read.
"We encourage all former Republican candidates not currently supporting Trump to unite against him and encourage all candidates to hold their delegates on the first ballot," it continued.
The meeting was one of several similar huddles that have been held in recent days as Trump's opponents look ahead to the convention, all as the front-runner continues to rack up primary victories.