It was the week the modern Republican Party was smashed by its voters.
From Super Tuesday on March 1 to a quartet of contests on March 5, Republicans in 15 states made their voices heard on who they'd like to carry their torch into the 2016 presidential election. The message to party leaders was loud and clear: you don't represent us, and we want something radically different.
GOP elites could feel the ground shifting beneath them as nearly two-thirds of Republicans—from deep-blue Massachusetts to deep-red Alabama—picked Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, the two candidates least acceptable to party leaders. During the week, nine states voted for Trump, who's viewed by party leaders as a dangerous figure that could destroy their brand among blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, and women. Five states chose Cruz, a senator whose scorched-earth tactics such as forcing a government shutdown in 2013 alienated fellow Republicans and have strategists worried that his appeal is too narrow to win a general election.
Just two of the 20 states and territories that have voted so far—Minnesota and Puerto Rico—have picked Marco Rubio, whom many establishment figures saw as their white knight. His dismal performance last week all but forecloses his path to the nomination.
For party elites trying to stave off a drastic change in direction sought by the insurgent, populist wing, the road ahead is bleak.
“The race is now a fight between angry Trump voters and uncompromising Cruz conservatives while the establishment can only hope for a brokered convention,” said Ron Bonjean, a former senior aide to several congressional Republican leaders. “The last-minute appeals made by Mitt Romney as well as the Rubio insult strategy backfired and motivated voters disgusted with Washington to flock to party outsiders.”
Last-ditch efforts by Republican establishment figures to stop Trump have backfired, including a Thursday speech by Romney excoriating him; a statement by 2008 nominee Senator John McCain urging voters to re-think their vote; and a rampage of recent attacks by Rubio on the businessman's integrity, values, and even manliness.
Party leaders now face a painful choice: get in line behind Trump or Cruz—as some prominent Republicans like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions have with Trump—or resist the will of their base by prolonging the primary and forcing a contested convention in July. Such a scenario could spark a revolt in the party, sapping energy and money and making it look to voters like a squabbling brood that isn't fit to govern the nation, and potentially hand the presidency to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Us vs. Them
Trump previewed a new line of attack on party leaders last week, aligning himself with Republican voters in an us-versus-them message that calls on them to reject past party leaders such as Romney, who on Thursday offered a scathing denunciation of Trump for essentially looking down on them.
“He’s not looking at me—he’s looking at all of us,” Trump said at a Friday rally in New Orleans, ripping into the party's 2012 nominee as a “choke artist” who failed conservatives in that election.
In Trump's telling, the billionaire former reality TV show host is the only who truly understands their frustrations and will attempt govern the country in the way they want, including by building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, restricting the flow of immigration, and dispensing with free trade deals he says have harmed American workers. His argument is bolstered by surveys that indicate large numbers of Republican voters across the country feel betrayed by their leaders.
Where this leaves the Republican Party is unclear, but it could force party leaders into an even more combative stance with Democrats, exemplified in the Senate GOP's refusal to allow a vote on anybody President Barack Obama nominates to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. This again could play into Clinton's hands. The pattern of confrontation with Obama has turned the Republican base's anger back on their own leaders, who voters perceive as stringing them along with promises they won't fight to keep, such as repealing Obamacare and cracking down on illegal immigration.
GOP strategists are now quarreling over whether Cruz is an acceptable alternative.
“Donald Trump embarrasses the Republican Party every day. Multiple times. In increasingly bizarre and frightening ways. So essentially any alternative looks pretty good by comparison,” said Ryan Williams, a former spokesman for Romney.
Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff for Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom Cruz last year called a liar on the floor of the chamber, said it's “nonsense” to think the Texan could be the consensus alternative to Trump.
As of Sunday night, an Associated Press tally gave Trump 384 delegates, leading Cruz's 300. Rubio was far behind with 151 after winning Puerto Rico, ahead of 37 for Ohio Governor John Kasich, who has said he'll drop out if he loses Ohio on March 15.
‘Why Have We Allowed That to Happen?’
On Saturday morning, Rubio channeled the GOP's befuddlement with Trump's rise.
“If you had told me a year ago that the front-runner at this stage in the Republican campaign would be a supporter of Planned Parenthood, who says he doesn't stand with Israel, who has a long record of supporting government-sponsored health care, I would say: on what planet would that be the Republican front-runner?” Rubio said during a question-and-answer session at CPAC. “We have to ask ourselves: why have we allowed that to happen? So I don't think any of us anticipated it.”
Cruz's unexpectedly strong showing Saturday—winning Kansas and Maine and coming within five points of Trump in Kentucky and Louisiana—combined with Rubio's under-performance bolsters the Texan's case that other candidates should drop out and let Trump and him battle it out for the prize. Trump, too, said on Saturday night he was eager for a two-man race with the Texas senator.
“Marco Rubio had a very, very bad night. Personally I’d call for him to drop out of the race,” Trump said at a press conference in West Palm Beach, Florida. “I would love to take on Ted one-on-one. That would be fun,” Trump added, predicting he'd defeat Cruz in states like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and California. (Rubio spokesman Alex Conant responded that Rubio won't drop out and intends to win his home state of Florida on March 15; he trails Trump in recent polls.)
Trump's rise led to the demise of presidential candidates with formidable résumés and crossover appeal to the establishment and insurgent wings of the party, including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Texas Governor Rick Perry, both of whom landed in feuds with the brash New Yorker before dropping out last September.
The Party Decides, But Voters Say No
Another troubling sign for Republicans is that endorsements from prominent party figures, who have successfully shaped the outcome of presidential primary contests for a half century, have fallen flat with voters this year.
An early lead in endorsements for Jeb Bush, who also brought in over $100 million to boost his campaign and super-PAC, amounted to little as he failed to crack the top three positions in the first three states and dropped out after South Carolina.
A flood of subsequent endorsements for Rubio failed to stave off crushing defeats to Trump in South Carolina (where he was backed by Governor Nikki Haley, Senator Tim Scott, and Representative Trey Gowdy) and in Nevada (where he was backed by Senator Dean Heller). Rubio finished a distant third in states after that despite endorsements in Kansas (from Governor Sam Brownback and Senator Pat Roberts) and Tennessee (from Governor Bill Haslam and Senator Lamar Alexander).
Apart from a handful of outside groups including Our Principles PAC and Make America Awesome, there has been scant effort to attack Trump. Many wealthy Republican donors and networks have sat on the sidelines, wary of opening up their wallets because they expected Trump to implode on his own or because they feared retaliation by the combative billionaire with a vast social media presence.
Liz Mair, a former Republican National Committee spokeswoman and spokesperson for Make America Awesome, recalled hearing from some prospective Trump donors, “We would totally donate to you if we could do it anonymously; we’re worried about Trump taking reprisals against us for donating to this.”
With the calendar poised to improve for Trump in delegate-rich Midwestern and Northeastern states yet to vote, the New York mogul is best-positioned to win the nomination, and the recriminations within the Republican Party are bound to get ugly.
“The people who want somebody not of Washington—it's serious this time,” Rush Limbaugh, a conservative talk-radio host, said on Fox News Sunday. “The disconnect between the Republican Party establishment and the Democrat establishment and the people of this country is longer, broader, wider than I’ve ever seen it.”