It was the political question of the moment, posed by a donor to eight Republican governors who gathered Sunday afternoon in the sumptuous Palm Beach, Fla., mansion of billionaire David Koch: What did they make of Donald Trump, and what effect would he have on the party if he were nominated?
New Mexico’s governor, Susana Martinez, chairwoman of the Republican Governors Association, did not mince words: She told the crowd of about 60 wealthy GOP backers that, as a Latina, she was offended by Trump’s language about immigrants. Noting her years working as a prosecutor on the Mexican border and now as a border-state governor, Martinez said Trump’s plan to build a wall and force Mexico to pay for it was unrealistic and irresponsible, according to multiple people in attendance.
The comments were a remarkably strong rebuke of the GOP front-runner by Martinez, who has been publicly circumspect about his candidacy since the GOP contest began. She spoke out after the other female governor in the room, South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, also criticized Trump, expressing concern that his rhetoric would taint the Republican brand. Haley said it was imperative that the GOP be inclusive to people from all backgrounds, according to attendees.
A spokesman for Haley declined to comment. Representatives of Martinez did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The back-to-back critiques by two of the GOP’s top female leaders — both considered potential vice presidential picks — underscored the deep gulf between Trump and some of the party’s most popular figures.
Haley has made no secret of her distaste for Trump’s divisive politics. She urged Americans in January to resist “the siren call of the angriest voices” while delivering the Republican Party’s official response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, and she continued to press those points on the presidential campaign trail in February and March as a key surrogate for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Martinez was critical of Trump’s language when he first got in the race in the summer, saying his comments casting Mexicans as criminals were “completely and unequivocally wrong.” At one point, she called his remarks "horrible." But since then, the New Mexico governor has been more cautious, even as she campaigned with Rubio in the spring. She has declined to say whether she would support Trump if he becomes the nominee. Last week, when she gave the keynote address at the New York Republican State Committee’s annual gala — where Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Gov. John Kasich also spoke — Martinez stuck to her biography and state record.
The comments by the two governors came during a lunch for current and prospective RGA donors, hosted by Koch, a major backer of the organization. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a former RGA chairman, moderated the session, which also was attended by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
A little more than a year ago, Trump himself was among the guests when Koch hosted a similar event attended by then-presidential contenders such as Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. At the time, the billionaire real estate developer was in the audience as a major contributor, not as a candidate. He had recently announced he was exploring a presidential run, but few in the party took it seriously.