In a sign of a fractured party splitting even further apart, all three Republican presidential candidates on Tuesday walked away from their pledge to support the winner of the nomination in the general election.
Donald Trump and John Kasich said they would no longer abide by that loyalty pledge without knowing who the nominee is, while Ted Cruz made a personal and substantive case against supporting Trump.
“No, I don't anymore,” Trump said during a CNN town hall when asked if he still pledged to support the eventual party nominee if he was not deemed the winner. “I have been treated very unfairly,” he said, by the Republican National Committee, the Republican Party, and “the establishment.”
As for Cruz, Trump added: “Let me just tell you, I don't want his support. I don't need his support. I want him to be comfortable.”
The front-runner’s remarks came shortly after Cruz said he’s “not in the habit of supporting someone who attacks my wife and my family,” referring to a recent Trump tweet going after his wife, Heidi Cruz.
“Nominating Donald Trump would be an absolute train wreck,” Cruz said. “I think it would hand the general election to Hillary Clinton.”
Kasich said he may have spoken too soon when he made the promise to back the Republican nominee. “I've got to see what happens,” Kasich said. “If the nominee is somebody who's hurting the country and dividing the country I can't stand behind him.”
The RNC pledge was initially conceived last year as an thinly veiled attempt to push Trump to rule out a third-party bid. He accepted, with the caveat that he “be treated fairly” by the party. As Trump cemented his lead in the race, the gambit appeared to have backfired.
RNC spokespersons didn't respond to messages Tuesday night seeking comment on their candidates backing off the loyalty pledge.
The broken pledges are sure to raise questions about whether the GOP is capable of uniting ahead of the 2016 election, heightening the dilemma for a party that's already facing questions about its viability in the general election.
“That sound you just heard is [RNC Chairman Reince Priebus] having a heart attack. If Trump turns on the GOP, the GOP is dead,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz wrote on Twitter. He added, “The GOP will have a bad time in November if Trump and Cruz supporters aren't unified behind the Republican nominee.”
Priebus has sought to downplay the specter of party divisions. On March 10, he made the unusual move of kicking off a Republican debate by insisting, unprompted, that “this party is going to support the nominee, whoever it is, 100 percent.”
At best, the candidates’ remarks Tuesday highlight the sharp differences within the three intra-party coalitions represented by the trio of finalists—the nativist and nationalist faction represented by Trump, the ideologically conservative faction represented by Cruz, and the moderate faction represented by Kasich. At worst, they call into question whether the factions can continue to co-exist. If not, the 2016 election hopes for the Republican Party, which faces demographic disadvantages against the Democrats even if it's united, in the 2016 election could be quashed.
The rivalry between Trump and Cruz descended into personal pettiness last week when the New Yorker re-tweeted an unflattering photo of the Texan's wife. Cruz lashed back at him, and has since sought to capitalize on Trump's weaknesses with women voters, a problem that was exacerbated after the real estate mogul's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was charged Tuesday with simple battery against a female reporter.
The billionaire’s decision to stand by his aide has emboldened critics who argue that his problems with women are so deep he'd be crushed in a general election against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
“It matters because as these antics add up, people are going to realize that he's going to lose to Hillary Clinton, that this is how we're going to lose the White House. It won't peel his core away, but it's going to prevent him from consolidating supporters,” said Rob Jesmer, a GOP strategist and former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
For the Cruz campaign, the criticism facing Trump is an opportunity to compete for Wisconsin's 42 delegates in the state's primary on April 5, and cut into Trump's commanding delegate lead.
“The actions by his campaign show that they uphold a culture of abuse—of verbal abuse, of recently physical abuse, and I don't think that's anything that voters really want to get behind. And I think those are things that cause them to second-guess why they support them,” Cruz campaign spokeswoman Catherine Frazier told Bloomberg Politics during a campaign stop in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. “I think it will lead to more and more voters coming on to our team—and delegates.”
For Cruz, a victory would undercut Trump's claim to being the presumptive nominee and take a step toward preventing him from securing the 1,237 delegates needed to lock up the nomination before the July convention. Unless he wins 82 percent of remaining delegates, Cruz's only hope of winning the nomination is at a contested convention, and the campaigns of Trump and Cruz are both meticulously planning for that scenario.
Some anti-Trump Republicans see Wisconsin as a do-or-die moment to slow the Trump juggernaut. “If not now, when? His basic sanity is obviously in question,” e-mailed Rick Wilson, a GOP strategist who says he'll never support Trump.
Yet Trump fans at a rally Tuesday in Janesville, Wisconsin, were unfazed.
Jennifer Capesius, of Elkhorn, 39, said that the media was “making a big stink” on the issue regarding Lewandowski. “They're trying to make it seem like Corey is violent so that we all seem violent,” she said.
Dan Brown, of Brodhead, 49, said that the incident was “hilarious.” “When you see the video—she barely even flinched,” he said. “She never got knocked to the ground.”
—With assistance from Michael C. Bender and Kevin Cirilli.