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Is the Republican establishment now a third party?

Modes of thought

Some Republican insiders' push for a third-party alternative to Donald Trump suggests they are now outsiders in their own party. 

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    Sen. Ben Sasse (R) of Nebraska speaks at the American Conservative Union annual conference in Maryland this March.
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Remember when the GOP was so worried about Donald Trump running as a third party candidate in the general election that it pushed a loyalty pledge on presidential hopefuls? Now the wingtip is on the other foot. Disaffected Republican loyalists are talking about mounting a third-party effort to challenge Mr. Trump, instead.

It’s unclear if the chatter is serious. Right-leaning pundit Jennifer Rubin writes Thursday in The Washington Post: “There are several groups with access to funding, in communication with one another, working on a third party run.” 

William Kristol, Weekly Standard editor and a charter member of the #NeverTrump club, appears to be shopping around for a possible candidate. His primary target on Thursday was Sen. Ben Sasse (R) of Nebraska, the only Republican senator to say outright they won’t vote for the party’s new presumptive nominee. Senator Sasse has been flooding social media with posts imploring someone, anyone, to step up as an alternative to Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Sasse has said he can’t run because he still has three small kids at home. As a father with grown children, Mr. Kristol’s been telling him that time spent at home with youngsters is overrated. (Yes, he’s being sarcastic, but only a little.)

“Those three little kids will enjoy their dad’s 6-month campaign – do home schooling on the plane, see the country..." Kristol tweeted Thursday afternoon.

A third-party effort can’t win, of course. Ms. Rubin writes that there is a path, but it involves denying anyone a 270 Electoral College vote majority and throwing the election into the House of Representatives. That’s unrealistic. No reasonable possible candidate, including Sasse, former Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, ex-Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, or even Mitt Romney, has the star power and voter appeal to pull that off.

On the other hand, a third party “Real Republican” candidate might provide someone for worried down-ballot GOP candidates to reference. Look at GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who’s locked in a tough reelection battle. She’s said she’ll support Trump, but won’t endorse him. What’s that mean? It’s a straddle the media will ask about for months to come. A factional GOP ticket could give her someone else to back without seeming too disloyal.

But the real problem about this unrest among the party elite is that it’s about them as much as about real GOP voters. They’re appalled by Trump and think he’ll lead the party to defeat, but lots of rank-and-file party members don’t agree with that, and are happy with Trump. Who was their choice, after all.

Right now, Trump’s got a 59 percent favorable rating among Republican and Republican-leaning voters, according to Gallup. His unfavorable rating in the party is 35 percent, for a plus-24 net favorable. 

Among GOP voters, Trump is far more popular than, say, Mr. Romney, who is now underwater with a minus-34 percent favorability among Republicans. Ted Cruz? He’s underwater too, with a minus-6 net favorable rating.

Yes, Trump enters the general election as the most unpopular presidential candidate since the advent of polling, overall. But that’s because his ratings with Democrats and independents are truly abysmal. Many in the GOP elite/establishment class see that and are worried about the consequences. Some continue to cast about for third-party alternatives. The larger Republican electorate does not feel that same way.

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