Republicans in Ohio and Florida head to the polls this week to help decide who will become their party's nominee, and whether the GOP will endure in any recognizable form in the months and years that follow. To hear those who have devoted their lives to building the party tell it, if front-runner Donald Trump prevails Tuesday in the two winner-take-all contests, its fate will be sealed.
The violent images from this weekend in Chicago, where a melee erupted when Trump canceled a rally in the face of furious protests, only crystalized opposition to him among the party's sober establishment. After mistakenly assuming that any number of missteps would sink Trump—mocking prisoners of war, calling undocumented immigrants rapists, using a woman's menstrual cycle to criticize a female reporter—there was hope that this might slow him down.
“I don't think this Chicago thing is going to help Trump,” said Austin Barbour, a prominent Mississippi-based Republican strategist. “No new voters are going to go to him because of this. And Republicans don't want this scene. That was mayhem.”
Trump surrogate Ben Carson, a former 2016 candidate, said Monday more violence is possible if protesters continue to antagonize the billionaire's supporters. “I think certainly if the protesters continue with their Alinsky-ite tactics there is a real possibility of escalation because those who are the victims of them have two choices,” Carson said on NBC's Today, referring to the late activist Saul Alinsky. “They can submit to them and meekly just do whatever those protesters want them to do or they can fight back and if they decide to fight back there could be an escalation.”
The momentum to stop Trump was building before Chicago. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the U.S. Senate, has called Trump an “albatross” for other candidates on the ballot in November, when the party will try to protect its majority in Congress. Columnist George Will has written that Trump’s nomination would mean the end of “a conservative party as a constant presence in U.S. politics.”
Even U.S. Representative Peter King, who has labeled Ted Cruz a fraud and a hypocrite, now says he’d back him over Trump.
Almost exactly one year ago, when asked about the prospects of backing Cruz for president, the New York Republican quipped, “I just hope that day never comes. I'll jump off that bridge when we come to it.”
In recent weeks, however, King has watched with dismay as Trump has overtaken the rest of the Republican field. King said he was most put off by Trump's comments that President George W. Bush knowingly lied to drag the country into a war in Iraq.
“This is what my life has become,” King said in an interview on Sunday. “As much as I don’t like Ted Cruz, I would take him over Trump.”
King said his choice for president, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, would have to drop out of the race if he loses his home state on Tuesday. Recent polls show Rubio a distant second there to Trump.
Barbour said he voted for Cruz in his state’s primary last week, albeit after a lengthy process of elimination.
“I didn’t think I was going to do that even two weeks ago,” Barbour said in an interview about his support for Cruz.
Barbour, who initially supported Rick Perry’s presidential campaign and later worked for Jeb Bush’s team, said Trump would almost certainly lose to Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.
“I don’t know that Ted Cruz can beat her, either, but at least I know he’s a Republican—I don’t know what Donald Trump is,” Barbour said. “There could be some coalescing around Cruz.”
Still, that shoving and taunting between Trump's supporters and opponents hadn't convinced all members of the establishment. Trent Lott, the former Senate Republican leader, said he was concerned Trump encourages his supporters to fight back against protesters, but said much of the blame for the violence belonged with protestors interrupting the gatherings.
Lott, who is backing Ohio Governor John Kasich, said he'd still prefer Trump over Cruz, who built a reputation on battling the party's leaders by leading the charge into the government shutdown in 2013 and, in a speech from the chamber floor, accusing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of lying.
“I can't get comfortable with Cruz,” Lott said in an interview on Sunday. “I have some real concerns about the things Cruz has said and done in the Senate. I'm not an advocate of his candidacy.”
Instead, Lott is hoping that Kasich and Rubio will soon announce a ticket together. That pairing of Ohio and Florida lawmakers would be the party's best chance to win in November, he said.
“I've talked to people in both camps off and on about this,” Lott said. “Nobody's been able to take hold of it yet. But partially that's because no one wants to be vice president.”
On Sunday evening in Boca Raton, Florida, Trump’s 45-minute rally went off without any significant protest. At one point, Trump asked for protesters to interrupt him, so that the cameras would pan away from him and show the crowd of several thousand people.
He called Rubio a “lousy senator” and feigned disgust at the thought he may not beat Kasich, who he accused of raising real estate taxes “through the roof.” Trump has another event in Tampa on Monday before returning to Ohio for a rally in Youngstown.
At an event at Sunset Cove Amphitheater in South Florida that drew several thousand, the New York businessman and former reality show host portrayed himself as inevitable, and suggested the party’s establishment was senseless.
“Bush was favored, then Walker was favored, then another was favored—they’re all favored. Now, Trump is favored,” Trump said. “They haven’t learned.”
Barbour said Cruz’s best chance of overtaking Trump would be at the party’s convention in July in Cleveland. That would mean keeping Trump below the 1,237 delegates he needs to secure the nomination.
But conventions are usually a time for healing wounds from the party’s primary. A contested convention risks deepening them. The last time it happened, in 1976, Gerald Ford left the convention with the nomination, but ultimately lost the presidency to Jimmy Carter.
An Ohio voter asked Kasich asked about running with Rubio during a town hall meeting on Sunday in Strongsville, Ohio. The Ohio governor, who was endorsed by former House Speaker John Boehner on Saturday, laughed it off.
“Where do you come up with this stuff?” Kasich said, adding that choosing a vice president would be like “measuring the drapes.”
Rubio, who has urged his supporters in Ohio to back Kasich in hopes of defeating Trump, faced another ominous poll as he campaigned Sunday through his home state. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist survey showed Trump with support from 43 percent of Republicans, compared to 22 percent for Rubio. A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday found a similar gap, 46-22.
The NBC poll in Ohio showed Kasich ahead of Trump by 6 percentage points, while the Quinnipiac survey showed them locked in a tie with 38 percent each.
Kasich's campaign called on Rubio to tell his supporters in Pennsylvania to drop a lawsuit that could keep the Ohio governor off the ballot for the state's April 26 primary. “Senator Rubio should tell his people to drop this suit and to have his super-PAC quit attacking John Kasich in Florida,” Kasich campaign spokesman Rob Nichols told Bloomberg Politics.
While Trump took aim at Rubio and Kasich in their home states, Cruz has focused much of his effort on Missouri and North Carolina, which also hold primary elections on Tuesday.
At the zMAX Dragway in Concord, North Carolina on Sunday, Cruz portrayed himself as the best candidate to re-establish the “Reagan coalition” of traditional Republicans and conservative-leaning swing voters. He pointed to the violence in Chicago as evidence that Trump isn't a unity candidate.
“In any campaign, responsibility starts at the top,” Cruz said.
—With assistance from Ben Brody, Terrence Dopp, and Kevin Cirilli.