How the Party of Jeb Bush and Scott Walker Helped Create Donald Trump

We're now living in a world where Club for Growth attacks anti-establishment candidates.

David Bettinger, a 65-year-old retiree in New Hampshire with bushy white hair and a mustache to match, isn't sure yet which Republican presidential candidate he'll support. “I know who I'm not for,” he counters. “It's an obvious answer: Trump.”

Except it's not at all obvious. Donald Trump is the most easily mocked Republican contender (Bettinger compares him to an equine's backside) and probably the most divisive. But the New York billionaire sits atop every public poll and has a double-digit lead in New Hampshire. “A lot of that's because a lot of people from Massachusetts moved up here, and they don't know any better,“ says Bettinger.

While the obstreperousness of Bay Staters should never be underestimated, there may be a better explanation for the phenomenon that has Trump at No. 1 in national Republican polls, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson at No. 2, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as the only other candidate with significant upward movement in the past month of polls. And that explanation may represent the biggest challenge facing the other candidates who will share the debate stage with them Wednesday night.

Of the 11 candidates who will participate in the prime-time debate on CNN, only Trump, Carson, and Fiorina have never held public office. And in this campaign year, the absence of that bullet point on their résumés is turning out to be a big plus.

The rise of the three outsiders may be the latest progression for a Republican Party that, for the past three election cycles, has been sowing the seeds of a movement now threatening to topple the party's best-funded and most politically experienced candidates. Sharp-edged rhetoric against Obamacare, taxes, regulations, and just about anything associated with Washington seems to have produced some unexpected collateral damage. Republican candidates have run for so long and so hard against government, that, at least for the moment, any candidate who has served in government is being hurt.

“Republican voters don't even want Tea Party candidates anymore,” said former U.S. Representative Charlie Bass of New Hampshire, referring to the conservative movement that fueled the party's takeover of the U.S. House in 2010, but struggled to build on the momentum. “They just seem to want someone who has no respect for any institutions at all.”

The rise of Trump and Carson has come at the expense of more battle-tested candidates. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, the Republican presidential contender with the most executive experience in public office, didn't even make it to the second debate, dropping out last week. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who won three statewide elections in a Democratic state, has watched his campaign deflate. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio hasn't been able to leverage his post-debate buzz last month, despite articulating the quandary facing Republicans.

“This election cannot be a résumé competition,” Rubio said at the debate in Cleveland. “It's important to be qualified, but if this election is a resume competition, then Hillary Clinton's gonna be the next president, because she's been in office and in government longer than anybody else running tonight.”

It's an argument that Republicans have pushed with ferocity since at least 2010, including in the race that led to Rubio's own unlikely Senate victory over the initial opposition of party bosses. Now it appears to be coming full circle.

Consider that Club for Growth, which has long been willing to back primary candidates against sitting Republican lawmakers, is now attacking the most-favored anti-establishment candidate in the presidential field. On the eve of the debate, the Washington-based group announced Tuesday that it's spending $1 million to criticize Trump on TV airwaves in Iowa, where conservative caucus-goers will have the first chance to winnow the presidential field.

Club for Growth has consistently backed insurgent candidates and politicians who regularly flout the will of party leaders. Exhibit A: U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, who knocked off an establishment favorite in a primary and who is now trying to engineer his second government shutdown. Another example: Representative Steve King of Iowa, who helped stop the Senate's bipartisan immigration bill from advancing in his own chamber last year. The group has also backed candidates like Sharron Angle in 2010 and Richard Mourdock in 2012, who won U.S. Senate primaries but came up short in crucial general-election races—races some Republicans think the party could have won if more politically moderate candidates had not been knocked off.

Club for Growth President David McIntosh has blamed establishment Republicans for the rise of Trump, saying that leaders like House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have failed to address frustration of their voters. At a news conference on Tuesday, McIntosh declined to say whether his group should bear any of the responsibility.

“We're not just anti-Washington, we're for those pro-growth policies,” McIntosh said. He described the anti-Trump ads as “a logical extension of what the Club stands for.”

As Republicans prepare to watch the party's second presidential debate—a format that Trump has shown an art for dominating—the party's traditional pro-business wing continues to insist that voters' fascination with the celebrity billionaire will subside. Javier Palomarez, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said Republican voters “will come to their senses.”

For the party to win its first presidential election since 2004, he said, “it's going to take someone with a track record of having governed, having worked both sides of the aisle, and having brought people together, as opposed to dividing.”

“What we're seeing on the Republican side and with Donald has been entertaining to watch, and enlightening,” Palomarez said. “It has crystallized this sense of frustration.”

Karen Floyd, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairwoman, said voter frustration has benefited groups like Club for Growth in the past, and is now being leveraged by Trump, Carson, and Fiorina. While the three have all taken different approaches, they're “harnessing the anger that's obviously permeated Americans' lives,” she said. Pointing to Carson's soft-spoken humility, Trump's “bulldog style,” and Fiorina's “tremendous soundbites that capture the anger that America feels,” Floyd worried that the kind of sparks that made the last debate such a hit with viewers could hurt the party.

“The question is whether all this crossfire ultimately crushes the Republicans' ability to win back the White House,” Floyd said. “It's death by a thousand cuts.”

New Hampshire Republican Chairwoman Jennifer Horn said anger about a “dysfunctional Washington” is justified, and said it's a problem for both parties, pointing to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton's sliding poll numbers.

“Since 2009, it's no question that the federal government has been more dysfunctional and gridlocked then ever, and the anger and frustration stems from that,” Horn said. “People feel betrayed, and that they cannot trust the people they've elected.”

But party strategists are worried that that sense of betrayal could be sabotaging the candidates who, on paper at least, have the best chance of putting a Republican back in the White House. The candidates standing on the far ends of the stage at Wednesday's debate—away from the center places reserved for the leaders in the polls—are senators and governors who have shown they can win in swing states and who have the serious financial support a candidate needs to sustain a better than year-long national campaign.

Glenn McCall, a Republican national committeeman in South Carolina, urged patience.

“It's not about policy right now,” McCall said. “Trump and Carson and even Carly are speaking from the heart. They're the new, fresh faces to the process, but what's of today may not be of tomorrow. The mood may change as people start really looking at the candidates. I think we will see some shifting.”

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