As Donald Trump rampaged through the Super Tuesday states, adding Massachusetts and Georgia and Virginia to his map, the Republican Party’s mainstream decided to trade panic for hope.
“Trump is not sweeping the Super Tuesday states as expected,” said Katie Packer, the Republican strategist whose Our Principles PAC was loading new attack spots for the mid-March contests.
“This is exactly how Democrats governed for 50 years,” said GOP activist Grover Norquist, stepping out of the annual dinner of the American Spectator magazine. “They owned the states. They occasionally won the presidency.”
If this did not sound like the reactions of people watching a hostile takeover of their political home, it was because their eyes were adjusting to a new reality. In the hours before the polls closed, some elected Republicans said they would refuse to support a Trump candidacy. More said he was dreadful, but they would support the ticket. And some thinkers, more aligned with the conservative movement than any party, were making contingency plans in case they needed to split.
The first group included Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), a retiring moderate whose district was decisively won by Trump. Hours before the polls closed, he released an open letter on a Virginia conservative blog promising not to vote for Trump but not endorsing any other candidate.
“My love for our country eclipses my loyalty to our party,” said Rigell, “and to live with a clear conscience I will not support a nominee so lacking in the judgment, temperament and character needed to be our nation’s commander-in-chief.”
Rigell had company, with Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) saying that they could not support Trump either — Sasse even saying he would favor the creation of a new party if Trump won the nomination. But more Republicans were choosing to wait it out, following House Speaker Paul D. Ryan in condemning Trump’s behavior.
That attitude was not matched by the conservative base. Randy Barnett, the libertarian lawyer whose thinking informed the near-miss lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act, wrote in USA Today that Trump was creating the conditions for a new “Constitution Party,” an ideologically pure breakaway.
“If the Democrats succeed in collapsing a Trump campaign — as I believe they can and will — then GOP voters can seamlessly shift to the new party,” he wrote, suggesting that this party also nominate a candidate for president. “If this happens, such a party can either actually win outright or throw the election into the House, which is allowed to pick from the top candidates, in this case, three.”
Erick Erickson, the conservative media mogul who disinvited Trump from his summer conference, agreed with Barnett.
“Controlling so many state legislatures and Governors mansions could be advantageous in access for a Republican third party bid,” he wrote on his website, the Resurgent. “Many of those incumbents understand that their survival depends on an alternative to Donald Trump.”
The disagreement between these conservatives is not so much about whether Trump is acceptable. It’s whether — given how many Republicans still oppose him — he is containable. It’s whether he can be contained by being defeated, or whether he can be contained by being influenced as the party nominee who has brought an army of new, disgruntled voters to the polls.
Trump did not win everywhere on Tuesday, but he won in most places. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas enjoyed a bit of a resurgence, winning his home state, neighboring Oklahoma and Alaska. The establishment candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, were left hoping to eke out wins in Minnesota and Vermont, respectively.
As the race moves next week to the Midwest, no campaign or faction was in despair. Ronna Romney McDaniel, the chairman of the Michigan Republican Party — and niece of 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney — said that the new Trump voters were welcome in the party and that a Trump nomination could appeal to older voters.
“I ask this at every listening tour: How many of you are going to back our nominee?” she said. “Every hand goes up. Everybody is going to.”
David Bossie, the president of the conservative advocacy group Citizens United, reacted to early results by saying it was time for Rubio to end his campaign and let Cruz take Trump on. But if Rubio and Cruz both lost, a Trump-led party could endure.
“Eight years ago, I worked against [John] McCain for the nomination and I sucked it up,” said Bossie. “Four years ago, I was against Romney. He won and I sucked it up. That’s what the establishment asks of conservatives every four years, to move on.”
And Judd Gregg, the former governor and senator from New Hampshire, was happy to see the race continue. He had initially endorsed Jeb Bush for president. On Monday, he switched his support to Kasich. “If Trump goes to the convention without a majority of delegates, there’s a pathway for Kasich,” said Gregg, waving off any suggestion that the party was in crisis and needed to consolidate.
And if Trump won? Gregg would support him.
“What’s the option, Hillary Clinton?” asked Gregg. “I’d rather have somebody a little light on substance than somebody who put our national security at risk.”