Trump Begins Tightrope Walk to Unite Republicans Behind Him

Some in the party say they'll cross over and vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election.

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The “stop Trump” movement has failed, but victory for the coming “back Trump” effort is far from assured.

Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican Party, declared Donald Trump the party's presumptive nominee on Tuesday after the front-runner's last serious rival, Senator Ted Cruz, exited the primary race. (Ohio Governor John Kasich was said to be poised to follow Wednesday.)

But as the New York real estate developer pivots toward Hillary Clinton, his likely Democratic opponent, he'll need to convince a bitterly divided party to unite behind him if he has any chance at winning the White House.

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On the day that he claimed his new title, Trump faced new doubts from donors who have spent millions to elect Republican rivals like Cruz. In Indiana on Tuesday, 71 percent of the Texas senator's supporters said they definitely won't support Trump in November. 

“There's definitely going to be an issue in uniting around a guy who quite frankly doesn't share our values,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a national co-chairman for Cruz's campaign and an influential evangelical voice in Iowa.

Trump's chances of beating Clinton depend largely on whether he can win back one-third of Republicans who say they won't vote for him in the general election, and then win over enough independents to tip the Electoral College his way. In a CNN/ORC poll released Wednesday, Clinton led Trump nationally by 13 percentage points.

For his part, Trump said Wednesday on NBC, “I am confident that I can unite much of” the party. “Some of it I don’t want.” 

“In Ted’s case it would be nice,” he added.

The former reality TV show host has turned off millions of Republicans after he used his campaign to mock women, Hispanics, prisoners of war, and the disabled. He started the day on Tuesday by suggesting that Cruz's father was somehow connected to the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. Yet he still chalked up a double-digit thumping in Indiana's primary. Now, however, some Republicans are vowing to cast a vote against him, even if it means losing the White House once again to the Democrats. 

“I will be voting for Hillary Clinton,” William Oberndorf, a Republican donor and San Francisco investor, told Bloomberg Politics about a Trump-Clinton matchup.

Oberndorf, who has donated $750,000 to Our Principles, super-PAC aimed at stopping Trump, said he has never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. He acknowledged Trump has tapped into the economic frustrations of many voters, but criticized the candidate for scapegoating immigrants and foreigners.

“For whatever reason, Republicans this cycle seem more determined to make a statement than to win the election,” Oberndorf said. “Go figure.”

Trump appeared aware of the task ahead, and used his victory speech in New York to congratulate Cruz and his wife, Heidi, whom Trump attacked during the campaign by posting an unflattering picture of her on Twitter. Trump also highlighted his own family, vowed economic improvements, and promised to usher in “one beautiful, loving country.”

“We're going to love each other, cherish each other, and we're going to have great economic development,” Trump said.

But that rosy picture belied the serious challenges facing Trump. As he considers his transition to the general election and finding a running mate, Trump has support from just one U.S. senator, Jeff Sessions—who also serves as his chief foreign policy adviser—and only a handful of House lawmakers who are mostly rank-and-file members with little influence. In Indiana, 43 percent of Republican voters said they'd be concerned or scared if Trump is elected president, according to exit polls. Among GOP voters in the state, 24 percent said they won't vote for Trump in the general election.

In his concession speech on Tuesday, Cruz didn't once mention Trump.

“He's temperamentally unfit for the office,” Mark Salter, a former adviser to 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, said about Trump in an interview. 

Salter said he would vote for Clinton over Trump because “she is the more conservative choice.” Salter said Trump was a “crazy narcissist” for suggesting he'd unwind the country's role in NATO, deport 11 million undocumented immigrants from the U.S., and kill the wives and children of Islamic terrorists.

“He's some kind of nut to want to do those things,” Salter said. “We're all guilty of not taking him more seriously when we should have. But it's shocking that a guy who can say these sorts of things is going to be the nominee.”

Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential run, said he would “absolutely not” vote for Trump in comments to the Daily Beast.

In addition to uniting a divided party, Trump must also expand his campaign for the next stage of the race, which includes vetting running mates, planning the convention, and fundraising for Republicans running across the country.

“Of course, Trump deserves credit for the win,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member from Mississippi who voted for Cruz. “Now, he needs to convert that into a sustained effort to unite the party. If we are going to win in November, that's where we have to start.”

Priebus, chairman of the RNC, said the party would unite behind its nominee for two reasons: Clinton and the U.S. Supreme Court. After more than three decades on the public stage, many conservatives have a visceral reaction to the mere mention of Clinton's name. And the next president likely will have the chance to nominate one justice to a current vacancy on the court, and potentially others. On inauguration day in January, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg will be 83, Stephen Breyer, 78, and Anthony Kennedy, 80.

Priebus also said the party has enjoyed record turnout at the primaries, record voter registration for Republicans and record fundraising at the RNC. He dismissed Salter's support for Clinton, which he posted on Twitter on Tuesday, as “one person's tweet.”

“We're in the best position any RNC could be in to absorb the situation,” Priebus said in an interview.

But opposition to Trump is deep-seated for many Republicans. For these longtime part loyalists, it will be a quantum leap going from convincing them to lay down their arms against Trump to inspiring them to help the likely nominee. For example, Paul Singer, a hedge-fund manager and Republican financier, referred to Trump as a “plague” during a meeting in March of Marco Rubio's presidential donors, according to one attendee who requested anonymity to speak about the private event. 

Stephen Hayes, a senior writer for the Weekly Standard, and Erick Erickson, a conservative radio show host and activist, both posted on Twitter that they would never back Trump in November. They were joined by Ben Howe, a contributing editor at the conservative RedState blog; Kyle Foley, a contributor to the conservative Hypeline news site; and Guy Benson, political editor of the conservative Townhall website.

“Reporters keep asking if Indiana changes anything for me,” Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, an early critic of Trump, posted on Twitter. “The answer is simple: No.”

Vander Plaats said Trump offered a potential solution: Name Cruz as his running mate.

“I don't think it's rocket science,” he said. “The only thing he could do is put Ted on the ticket and say he's in charge of Supreme Court nominees.”

But that appeared to be long-shot on Tuesday when Trump linked Cruz's father with John F. Kennedy's assassin. Cruz responded by calling Trump the “biggest narcissist,” “utterly amoral,” a “pathological liar,” and a “serial philanderer.”

“He is lying to his supporters,” Cruz told reporters in Indiana. “Donald will betray his supporters on every issue.”

Asked about the jabs, Priebus said Republicans had to “use their mouths to honor each other.”

“We’re the party of the open door, not the party of insulting each other and telling people to leave,” he said. “That doesn’t win elections.”

—With assistance from Kevin Cirilli.

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