Three things about Donald Trump have become clear to the Republican establishment:
1. He might not implode before people start voting for president next year.
2. He could actually wind up as the Republican nominee for president.
3. His nomination would be an unmitigated disaster for down-ballot Republicans running for the Senate, the House and other offices.
What no one in the GOP establishment seems to be able to agree on is how to prevent the Trump-as-nominee scenario. Candidates who have tried to attack him have come out the worse for wear. (Think former Texas governor Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.) Major donors prefer not to expose themselves to a full-scale Trump attack.
But how do you solve a problem like Trump? I have an idea! And it involves, you, Jeb Bush. Okay, here goes.
Bush is in a very bad position in this race. He is polling at 3 percent in a new national CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey. Three! A Quinnipiac University poll last week showed that more than 1 in 5 Republicans won’t vote for him under any circumstances.
Bush and his Right to Rise super PAC have spent almost $29 million on TV ads in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, but they have done little to help his numbers. Dead in the water is a fair way to describe him at the moment.
Bush still has one thing going for him, though: money. Right to Rise raised more than $103 million in the first six months of the year. It spent — as I mentioned above — nearly $29 million on ads. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the organization has spent an additional $15 million on fundraising, consulting fees and other miscellaneous costs. And let’s also assume that Right to Rise hasn’t raised any more money since June 30. (It, of course, has.) A little simple math gets you this: Right to Rise should have (at least) $60 million left to spend on this race.
That’s a ton of cash. And although I know Right to Rise has a plan in place to spend down its massive wad throughout February and March (and beyond) in hopes that Bush eventually emerges as the top choice, I just don’t see a lot of evidence that the race will yield that scenario unless there is a sizable shake-up sometime soon.
So why not change course and use all of that money to try to force such a shake-up? Simply put: Take all of the ad time Right to Rise has reserved for Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and turn the fire hose on full blast against Trump. I am talking about a sustained ad campaign whose sole aim is to disqualify Trump — not boost Bush. Sure, Bush and Right to Rise have jabbed at Trump — and a super PAC supporting Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s campaign for the Republican nomination has gone into full attack mode against the Donald — but no one other than the Bush forces has the money to maintain a sustained negative ad campaign against Trump in, at least, the first three voting states for the next few months.
There’s some precedent for a tactic like this working in a race like this. In late 2003, Democratic forces aligned when John F. Kerry, then a senator from Massachusetts, and then-Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri took a flamethrower to Howard Dean’s candidacy in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina with a flight of ads that painted the former Vermont governor as an inexperienced and unsteady leader at a time of international crisis.
Dean, a Democrat, collapsed heading into Iowa, an implosion credited — at least in part — to the ad campaign against him. Kerry, the safe, establishment choice who had looked like a loser just a few months before, rapidly emerged as the nominee. Sound familiar, Jeb?
Now, Trump is not Dean. Despite his many seeming gaffes and misstatements, the real estate billionaire’s support has remained solid and, of late, has grown. (He was at 36 percent in the CNN poll.)
It’s possible that even a major ad campaign by Right to Rise that tries to kneecap Trump could fail. And because Trump is wealthy, he could — if he were so inclined — write his own $30 million check to counter the Right to Rise ad buy. (I’m skeptical of that because Trump hasn’t exactly been loose with his checkbook in the race so far.)
Sure, a sustained attack on Trump could, theoretically, boomerang against Bush as Republicans — Trump supporters and not — come to see the move as dirty and punish Bush for what Right to Rise does. But, to be candid, what the heck do Bush and his allies have to lose at this point? He’s absolutely nowhere in the race.
There is a not-insignificant chance that a heavy and sustained ad buy against Trump could yield some real effect on the billionaire’s numbers. A Trump decline would greatly destabilize the shape of the race. No one needs the state of the race destabilized more than Bush. Period.
Bush and the broader establishment that he represents need to understand that these are desperate times for them. Standing on the sidelines is no longer a viable option. Waiting for someone else to do it won’t work. Someone needs to step up and try to take Trump out, if, indeed, the establishment thinks that Trump’s nomination would spell catastrophe.
No one is better positioned, or has less to lose, than Bush or Right to Rise. It’s time to take a chance.