Less than three months before the kick-off Iowa caucuses, there is growing anxiety bordering on panic among Republican elites about the dominance and durability of Donald Trump and Ben Carson and widespread bewilderment over how to defeat them.
Party leaders and donors fear nominating either man would have negative ramifications for the GOP ticket up and down the ballot, virtually ensuring a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidency and increasing the odds that the Senate falls into Democratic hands.
The party establishment is paralyzed. Big money is still on the sidelines. No consensus alternative to the outsiders has emerged from the pack of governors and senators running, and there is disagreement about how to prosecute the case against them. Recent focus groups of Trump supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire commissioned by rival campaigns revealed no silver bullet.
In normal times, the way forward would be obvious. The wannabes would launch concerted campaigns, including television attack ads, against the front-runners. But even if the other candidates had a sense of what might work this year, it is unclear if it would ultimately accrue to their benefit. Trump’s counter-punches have been withering, while Carson’s appeal to the base is spiritual, not merely political. Even if someone was able to do significant damage to them, there’s no telling who their supporters would turn to, if anyone.
“The rest of the field is still wishing upon a star that Trump and Carson are going to self-destruct,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a former adviser to 2012 nominee Mitt Romney. But, he said, “they have to be made to self-destruct. . .Nothing has happened at this point to dislodge Trump or Carson.”
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Fehrnstrom pointed out that the fourth debate passed this week without any candidate landing a blow against Trump or Carson. “We’re about to step into the holiday time accelerator,” he said. “You have Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, then Iowa and a week later, New Hampshire, and it’s going to be over in the blink of an eye.”
According to other Republicans, some in the party establishment are so desperate to change the dynamic that they are talking anew about drafting Romney — despite his insistence that he will not run again. Friends have mapped out a strategy for a late entry to pick up delegates and vie for the nomination in a convention fight, according to the Republicans, who were briefed on the talks, though Romney has shown no indication of reviving his interest.
For months now, the GOP professional class assumed Trump and Carson would fade with time. Voters would get serious, the thinking went, after seeing the outsiders share a stage with more experienced politicians at the first debate. Or when summer turned to fall, kids went back to school and parents had time to assess the candidates. Or after the second, third or fourth debates, certainly.
None of that happened, of course, leaving establishment figures disoriented. Consider Thomas H. Kean Sr., a former New Jersey governor who for most of his 80 years has been a pillar of his party. His phone is ringing daily, bringing a stream of exasperation and confusion from fellow GOP power brokers.
“People usually start off in the same way: Pollyanna-ish,” Kean said. “They assure me that Trump and Carson will eventually fade. Then we’ll talk some more and I give them a reality check. I’ll say, ‘The guy in the grocery store likes Trump, so does the guy who cuts my hair. They’re probably going to stick with him. Who knows if this ends?’”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, herself an outsider who rode the tea party wave into office five years ago, explained the phenomenon.
“You have a lot of people who were told that if we got a majority in the House and a majority in the Senate, then life was gonna be great,” she said in an interview Thursday. “What you’re seeing is that people are angry. Where’s the change? Why aren’t there bills on the president’s desk every day for him to veto? They’re saying, ‘Look, what you said would happen didn’t happen, so we’re going to go with anyone who hasn’t been elected.’”
Before Tuesday’s debate in Milwaukee, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had a private reception at the Pfister Hotel with party leaders, donors and operatives. There was little appetite for putting a political knife in the back of either Trump or Carson, according to one person there. Rather, attendees simply hoped both outsiders would go away.