The latest Republican trying to save the party from Donald Trump is U.S. Senator Mike Lee of Utah, who traveled to South Carolina last week to broker a plan to stop the billionaire real-estate developer, according to several people familiar with his efforts.
Yet Lee fell short, those who knew the details of the effort said, and the reasons show why Republicans aghast at the idea of Trump as their nominee might be powerless to stop him.
Little known outside Washington, Lee was uniquely positioned to encourage fellow senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz to unite against Trump. A respected Tea Party conservative, Lee has enjoyed cordial relations with both men during his time in the Senate. Last week, he took the unusual step of campaigning with both of his Senate colleagues, endorsing neither, while, without mentioning his name, slamming the billionaire steamrolling his way to the nomination.
"Don’t settle for sweeping generalities and bumper-sticker slogans," he told a gathering hosted by Conservative Review on Feb. 18. "Demand specific proposals because a true conservative will be prepared to give you those. Don’t settle for a candidate who thinks he’s a king."
He also told conservative activists not to "settle for a sideshow," for "promises of big deals, big deals concocted with very few people at the table," or for "somebody who just claims to be [conservative] today because it’s convenient."
The speech attracted little media attention, and Trump marched to victory with a 10-point margin on Saturday. On Tuesday, he notched his third victory in a row with a decisive Nevada caucus win.
Lee made the trip to South Carolina with hopes of trying to arrange a cease-fire between Rubio and Cruz, according to a person working for one of the presidential camps. Lee’s team denies an attempt at a meeting but doesn’t dispute that he had hoped a trip to the Palmetto State might result in some plan to blunt Trump’s momentum before it was too late. Speaking to reporters before a Monday rally in Las Vegas, Cruz unequivocally shot down rumors that he had met secretly with Rubio.
As a senator who backed Cruz’s successful shutdown attempt in 2013 as well as Rubio's resume-burnishing tax plan in 2015, Lee could claim to have important ties to both sides -- although his relationship with Cruz cooled after splitting over a sentencing bill. But Rubio and Cruz, each with raging presidential ambitions of his own, have little incentive to team up against Trump. Never particularly friendly, the two lawmakers have fought bitterly in recent weeks, as Rubio pounded Cruz over dirty campaign tactics that ultimately led to Cruz dismissing his national spokesman on Monday.
Meanwhile, Trump stands alone, and far ahead, with a clear path to the nomination -- leaving Republican establishment figures scrambling to do something.
"No one has stopped him because no one has really tried," said a Tuesday memo from the anti-Trump Our Promises PAC, according to the Wall Street Journal. "In my nearly 30 years of political involvement, I have never seen a campaign where the frontrunner had no aggressive, strategic campaign launched against him."
But the call to arms from the PAC, which is run by Katie Packer, a former top staffer to Mitt Romney, comes as time is running out. Trump is looking strong for Super Tuesday, when the Republican field will hand out about a quarter of its delegates through 12 state contests on a single day.
—With assistance from Steven Dennis.