Republican Elites Harden Resolve Against Trump as Voters Flock to Him

One top Republican says the race isn't over, but you have to “give the devil his due.”

Super Tuesday: Candidate Reaction in 2 Minutes

Donald Trump's Republican presidential campaign has now collected victories in the vast majority of the first 15 states of the nomination contest. He's on pace to win more votes than any other GOP primary candidate before him, and his candidacy is helping fuel record turnout across the country.

And yet on Tuesday, as Trump continued to gather sweeping victories from New England to the Deep South, the urgent calls from establishment Republicans to stop him only grew louder and more apocalyptic.

“If we nominated Donald Trump,” Senator Marco Rubio, a presidential candidate from Florida, said Tuesday on CNN, “it will be the end of the modern Republican Party.”

In any other year, a candidate who amassed as many victories as Trump would be busy accepting stacks of endorsements and consolidating support of the party's power brokers. But Trump continues to be spurned not only as an outsider seeking political office for the first time but as a candidate who is stacking up wins without voting blocs crucial to winning the White House.

Four years after the party identified loosening immigration laws as a way to broaden its appeal and break its consecutive defeats in the presidential race, GOP leaders remain confounded by Trump. While his anti-immigration message is inspiring record numbers of white, conservative voters to the polls, it's also alienating Hispanics who could deliver either party the presidency.

“If this was Rick Perry or Scott Walker or Bobby Jindal or any other governor, the race would be over,” said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman. “But people understand that we can't win a presidential race with just white people.”

Nearly three of every four Republican voters who didn't back Trump on Tuesday said they wouldn't be satisfied if he became the nominee, exit polls showed.

As voting was under way in 11 states on Tuesday, one of the most aggressive anti-Trump efforts from the party establishment—a group known as Our Principles PAC—received a boost from billionaires Todd Ricketts and Paul Singer and from Meg Whitman, the current chairwoman of Hewlett Packard.

They urged Republican donors to pump cash into a fresh effort to stop Trump, the New York Times reported. Hours later, Our Principles PAC released a new attack ad calling Trump a racist and announced it hired Tim Miller, who was most recently communications director for former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, whose pro-immigration campaign burned out after spending more than $130 million in the primary.

“The fight to stop Donald Trump from getting the nomination is intensifying regardless of tonight's outcome,” Miller said. “I'm pleased to be a part of it.”

Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, has vowed to vote third party in November before supporting Trump. House Speaker Paul Ryan suggested Trump was leveraging racism to win votes. Representative Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican, said the front-runner was “unworthy” of the party's nomination. 

It's an open question what success a continued assault from the Republican establishment would have on Trump. In recent days, the New York businessman easily fended off a frantic, last-minute push from party stalwarts like 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney to thwart his success. 

“It looks like he'll have more than enough delegates to stop any kind of challenge at the convention if these trends continue,” said Ron Kaufman, a Republican national commiteeman from Massachusetts. “This certainly isn't over yet, but you have to give the devil his due. It's a pretty impressive start.”

For his part, Trump—who has compared undocumented immigrants to rapists, called for a temporary halt on Muslim immigration, and has mocked a disabled reporter—portrayed himself as a uniting figure on Tuesday. At his beachfront resort in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump held a news conference with many presidential touches in the background, including several American flags and a sitting U.S. governor flanking him. 

Trump pointed to victories in some of the most populated states to hold primary contests so far, and the record turnout that has come in many of them, as evidence that he is “expanding the party” enough to easily beat Hillary Clinton.

Andre Tartar / Bloomberg

“Our party is expanding and all you have to do is take a look at the primary states where I’ve won,” Trump said. “We’ve gone from one number to a much larger number. That hasn’t happened to the Republican Party in many, many decades. So I think we’re going to be more inclusive, more unified and a much bigger party and I think we’re going to win in November.”

Trump described himself as a unifying candidate.

“I know people are going to find that a little bit hard to believe, but believe me, I am a unifier,” Trump said. “Once we get all of this finished. I am going to go after one person, that’s Hillary Clinton.”

Trump claimed responsibility for record turnout in the first four primary contests last month, and another explosion of Republican voting on Tuesday. There were reports of long lines outside polling places in Alaska, Republicans crammed into entranceways of Minnesota caucus locations, and record turnout in Massachusetts, the state where Romney served as a popular governor for four years.

Turnout in the Texas primary was expected to be record breaking with 2.5 million voters, a feat where turnout in a state Republican primary has never been above 1.5 million, according to Derek Ryan, founder of Ryan Data & Research, an Austin-based political consulting firm that specializes in voter data.

In Georgia, early voting broke the record by the time it ended Friday. A total of 417,491 ballots were cast early, either by mail or in person, breaking the 2008 record of 271,418 early votes.

“There's an underground thing going on with Trump,” said Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, a state utility regulator in Georgia who arrived at the polling place in a 45-foot RV covered in Trump signs. “More people are supporting him than say so.”

Still, the favored candidate of the Republican establishment, Rubio, took the stage back home in Miami on Tuesday delivering what, had the results not been known, would have sounded like a victory speech. Rubio did collect a win in Minnesota, his only victory in the first 15 nominating contests.

“We are so excited about what lies ahead for our campaign,” Rubio said. “You see, just five days ago, we began to unmask the true nature of the front-runner so far in this race. Five days ago, we began to explain to the American people that Donald Trump is a con artist.”

Buoyed by establishment donors that have no other real choice left in the race (Ohio Governor John Kasich has yet to win a state, and hasn't bothered to compete in most), Rubio suggested that he wouldn't drop out any time soon. In his speech, he pointed to his home state's contest on March 15, when 99 delegates are up for grabs.

“Two weeks from tonight right here in Florida we are going to send a message loud and clear,” Rubio said. “We are going to send the message that the party of Lincoln and Reagan and the presidency of the United States will never be held by a con artist.”

Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, said Wednesday on MSNBC that the Trump threat could necessitate a gentleman's agreement between Rubio and Kasich to defer to one another in the upcoming winner-take-all elections in their home states. “The candidates have to do a better job,” Kristol said.

But it's Texas Senator Ted Cruz, so far, who can make the easier argument as the anti-Trump candidate. 

The Texas senator has four victories to Rubio's one, but he's the only candidate in either party who has shown overwhelming success in raising money in all three available methods: small online donations of $25 or $50 from activists, the maximum $2,700 donations bundled by veteran fundraisers, and the six-figure checks that fuel his multiple super-PACs.

“We are the only campaign that has beaten Donald Trump once, twice, three times,” Cruz said at a rally outside Houston. 

Cruz called himself a “lifelong conservative” while painting Trump as “profane and vulgar” with a “lifelong pattern of using government power for personal gain.”

“Donald Trump has been part of the Washington corruption for 40 years,” Cruz said.

With assistance from Lauren Etter in Texas, Margaret Newkirk in Georgia, and Justin Sink in Washington.

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