Nineteen states have voted in the Republican presidential primary process. And it’s hard to imagine a more nightmarish scenario for the party’s establishment.
“We’re left with a bully and a zealot,” Republican media consultant Kim Alfano said.
At present, Donald Trump — the foul-mouthed billionaire who revels in breaking every political rule — is the favorite for the party’s nomination. The alternative is Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), who may be the least-popular politician in Washington.
The only two realistic options for how the race plays out from here are (1) Trump gets the 1,237 delegates he needs to formally become the GOP nominee or (2) he falls short of the requisite delegates but enters the national convention in mid-July in Cleveland with the most delegates of anyone in the field (and with Cruz in second).
So in an unsavory choice between the unpredictable Trump and the disliked Cruz, where does the Republican political class — strategists, major donors and the like — come down?
“The difference between Cruz as the nominee and Trump being the nominee is the difference between pain you know you’re going to have and pain you can’t yet predict” but know is coming, said Neil Newhouse, a partner at the Republican polling firm of Public Opinion Strategies.
The general-election race, Newhouse noted, would be markedly different depending on the Republican nominee.
If it’s Cruz vs. Hillary Clinton, “the fight comes down to its essence — an ideological battle, with both sides campaigning to energize their bases while appealing to the moderate middle,” he said. Trump vs. Clinton, on the other hand, becomes “a personality-character contest, with less focus on ideology,” Newhouse said.
But neither Cruz nor Trump are what Republicans hoped for at the start of the 2016 cycle, an election widely touted as one in which some of the party’s supposed brightest stars — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and former Florida governor Jeb Bush — were in the running.
The problem for the GOP establishment was that its voters didn’t like any of those options. Bush is out. Jindal never even got started. Rubio is hanging on by a thread. Ohio Gov. John Kasich is hoping for a quadruple bank shot over the next month to somehow catapult him into contention.
Want to understand how weak the Republican establishment is and how disconnected it is from its base? Of the 19 states that have voted as of Saturday, an establishment candidate has won a grand total of one: Rubio, in the Minnesota caucuses. (Trump has won 12 contests, and Cruz six.)
Yet within some corners of the party, there remains an unwillingness to accept that the choices are — and will be — Trump or Cruz. The idea of keeping Trump from the nomination has become the all-encompassing focus of late. But ask the #NeverTrump folks what denying him the nomination means, and they will be loath to admit that the most likely next outcome is Cruz as the Republican nominee. The sense of “we’ll get it worked out” belies that, at every turn in this race, the establishment’s best-laid plans have blown up.
When most professional political Republicans are confronted with the choice between Cruz and Trump, there is an increasing tendency to side with the senator — a remarkable thing and a testament to just how much concern Trump’s wildness as a candidate has occasioned.
“At the end of the day, I know what I’m getting with Ted Cruz,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of Cruz’s most vocal critics, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday morning. “Tactically, I disagree with Ted about shutting down the government to repeal Obamacare. I thought it was a bad idea. But, yeah, if I can work with Ted Cruz, I think that shows that there is hope.”
“Hope” may be too strong a word for what the Republican establishment faces as the November election approaches. More like a rock behind Curtain 1 and a hard place behind Curtain 2.