AGAINST THE GRAIN

GOP Leaders Surrender to Trump

Dislike of Ted Cruz among top Republicans keeps most of them on the sidelines, paving the way for Trump to be the party’s new boss.

Donald Trump speaks during a rally on Thursday in Costa Mesa, Calif.
AP Photo/Chris Carlson
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
May 1, 2016, 6 a.m.

If Donald Trump goes onto to win Indiana’s primary Tuesday, all but guaranteeing him the Republican presidential nomination, the story of the GOP campaign will be the party leadership’s acquiescence to the billionaire businessman. Former House Speaker John Boehner, at a critical moment, publicly proclaimed his hatred for Ted Cruz this week (“Lucifer in the flesh”) and said he would vote for Trump, an occasional golfing partner and “texting buddy.” Most senators’ relationships with Cruz are so poor that they’ve remained on the sidelines instead of rallying behind the Texas senator to stop Trump. If it weren’t for Trump’s self-inflicted wounds after pivotal victories, the nomination would be his by now.  

Indiana provides the last chance for Republican leaders to make a meaningful impact on the race, and most have been reluctant to do so—even though the state is still competitive and a Cruz victory would again alter the trajectory of the primary. Gov. Mike Pence, a hero to conservatives for years, belatedly (and somewhat perfunctorily) endorsed Cruz on Friday. He did so after coming under relentless pressure from allies who wondered why he was staying on the sidelines in such a crucial contest. Pence clearly was worried about alienating the state’s bloc of Trump supporters in a year he’s running for reelection, and he went out of his way to praise Trump before announcing his support for Cruz. “I’m not against anybody, but I’m voting for Ted Cruz,” Pence said.

Other leading Republicans in the state have remained silent. Former Gov. Mitch Daniels, who controversially tweaked his own party for its unstinting social conservatism during the last presidential campaign, has been publicly silent on Trump from his perch at Purdue University. As a principled pragmatist, he would have been a powerful voice in convincing John Kasich supporters how important it is to support Cruz—simply as a means of denying Trump the nomination. If Kasich ends up playing spoiler, Daniels’s silence will have spoken volumes.

Behind the scenes, donors are exhausted. Even when the stakes are the highest, many are unwilling to dish out more anti-Trump dough. It’s one reason why the “Stop Trump” groups were mostly off the airwaves in the expensive Northeastern states holding primaries, given the prohibitive cost of advertising. Meanwhile, there’s little enthusiasm within Republican leadership circles to deny Trump the nomination if he comes very close to the magic 1,237 number. Trump’s past political blunders have quickly been forgotten; if he wins Indiana, it would take another epic blunder for him to blow it. With Paul Manafort and a more professional staff now on board, that’s less likely to happen again.

What makes this GOP surrender so remarkable is that, by not fighting Trump more aggressively, Republicans are acting against their own self-interest. This rarely happens in politics. As I’ve outlined previously, a Trump nomination risks severe down-ballot losses. Cruz, while a weak nominee, would be more likely to keep the party (uncomfortably) together—with a fighting chance to defeat Hillary Clinton. It’s why Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, in a tough reelection bid of his own, publicly announced that he voted for Cruz in his blue-state primary. A national Democratic landslide in 2016 would likely end Pence’s political career in Indiana.  

With Trump as the nominee, he becomes the new party boss—at least for several months, and potentially longer. As a person who prizes loyalty above all else, he’ll undoubtedly have scores to settle. Anti-Trump Republicans who stayed silent as Trump bulldozed his way through the Republican Party will be in for a rude awakening under their new master.

TRAIL MIX

1.Cruz’s last-minute selection of Carly Fiorina as a running mate was a move borne out of desperation. Playing the “running mate” card is one of the most valuable moves a candidate can make; that’s why it’s traditionally saved for the week before the nominee’s convention. In this unique election, Cruz would have preferred to use his pick at a contested convention, where he’d be able to secure delegates in exchange for a running mate’s support. With the benefit of hindsight, he should have made his choice in the aftermath of the New York primary to deny Trump the media momentum he received from the narrative-changing victory.

Under normal circumstances, Fiorina is a solid pick. She’s an engaging speaker, who made Cruz’s long-winded introduction of her seem downright dreary compared to her more-focused, passionate delivery. She’s a relentless attack dog who can make the case against Clinton (and Trump) as well as anyone.

But Cruz wouldn’t have named her to the ticket unless he was trying to do everything in his imagination to win Indiana. If he fails there, Fiorina becomes an asterisk in American political history.  

2. One strategic turning point in the campaign: the decision by the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC to largely cede the Northeast to Trump, given his expected victories there. Of the six Northeastern primaries held this month, the group spent money on ads only in Maryland, in hopes of preventing Trump from winning the three congressional districts near Washington. On paper, the decision made sense. Even with Trump’s huge margins of victory in the Northeastern states, he didn’t net many more delegates than expected. But the PAC didn’t fully anticipate the massive momentum shift from those contests, which has given Trump a boost in future primaries.

It’s likely that some anti-Trump Republicans, not expecting their home-state primaries to be competitive, simply stayed home. Trump won a near-majority of the Republican vote in the moderate-minded GOP suburbs around Philadelphia and a whopping  55 percent of the vote in tony Fairfield County, Connecticut. Advertising in these areas is very expensive, so the anti-Trump forces wouldn’t have gotten much bang for their buck. But not spending to get their message out was a surefire way to lose badly against Trump, who’s the master of free media.

3. The Democratic establishment scored two big victories in the Maryland and Pennsylvania Senate primaries on Tuesday. In Maryland, Rep. Chris Van Hollen decisively defeated his House colleague Donna Edwards, 53-39 percent, potentially giving incoming Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer a reliable partner. Katie McGinty’s commanding 10-point victory over former Rep. Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania means the Democratic Party’s millions backing the victor were well-spent, giving the party its strongest challenger against Toomey in the fall.

In Maryland, a dustup between a pro-Edwards super PAC and the Obama White House proved fatal to Edwards’s chances. (See here for more background.) While early polls showed Edwards with a commanding lead among African-American voters, she badly underperformed in the two African-American population centers in the state, Baltimore city and Prince George’s County. Edwards barely won a majority of the Baltimore city vote (53 percent), and won only 63 percent in her home county of Prince George’s. Van Hollen, meanwhile, won 76 percent in his home base of Montgomery County and dominated elsewhere, carrying all but three counties in the state.

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