The Republican Party stands on the edge of a precipice, a Grand Old Party unsure of its identity and its future.
The immediate instigator of the party’s crisis is Donald Trump, whose strong performance on Super Tuesday sets him on a firm path toward the Republican presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton’s equally strong performance on the Democratic side all but locks in her own nomination.
But while Mrs. Clinton’s victories on Tuesday mean that the Democratic establishment is likely to get its choice of nominee, for Republican leaders, the Trump juggernaut effectively represents a hostile takeover of their party. And it's voters – many of them longtime Republicans, others new to politics – who are spurring the change, as they hear Mr. Trump’s message and jump aboard.
“The modern GOP is literally changing before our eyes, whether or not we choose to see it,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.
The party’s conservative message on social issues, particularly its hostility to same-sex marriage, is falling out of favor, he notes. Views on health care are all over the map. And neoconservative foreign policy – the idea of the US as the world’s “policeman” – faces growing public resistance.
“Trump knows this and is leveraging it to his advantage,” Mr. O’Connell says.
Trump also routinely slams free trade agreements and praises Planned Parenthood – both views that are anathema to Republican orthodoxy.
But it is Trump’s biggest applause lines – starting with his call for mass deportations of illegal immigrants – and other incendiary rhetoric that threaten the party most. Republican leaders have spent years trying to craft an image of a GOP that is more welcoming to racial, ethnic, and religious minorities and of diversity in general. Trump is undoing that effort in a televised road show that many see tinged with nativism and intolerance.
A Republican Party with Trump as the nominee will be “the party of left-out white people,” says John Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
That’s not to say that “economically challenged” white people don’t deserve attention, he notes, adding that the 2016 campaign has legitimately raised their concerns.
“But that’s not how you build a majority party,” says Professor Pitney, a former GOP staffer. “You don’t alienate large segments of the electorate, such as Hispanics and African Americans, and expect that the party will be successful in the years ahead.”
An uneasy establishment
It is that image of intolerance that led House Speaker Paul Ryan to speak out Tuesday, not mentioning Trump by name but referencing his latest controversy. In a television interview over the weekend, Trump had appeared unwilling to disavow support from white supremacists, claiming he didn’t know anything about the groups or their leaders, then saying he didn’t hear the question clearly.
“This party does not prey on people's prejudices,” Speaker Ryan told reporters. “We appeal to their highest ideals. This is the party of Lincoln.”
Notably, Ryan ended his comments by saying he would support the GOP’s nominee, as have most Republican elected officials. But the façade of party unity has some dings. Freshman Sen. Ben Sasse (R) of Nebraska issued a statement on Facebook Sunday asserting that he would never vote for Trump. And if Trump wins the nomination, Senator Sasse says he will look for “some third candidate – a conservative option, a Constitutionalist.”
On Tuesday, retiring Rep. Scott Rigell (R) of Virginia also issued an open letter rejecting Trump as the potential nominee, slamming “his judgment, temperament, and character, all of which point to a reckless, embarrassing, and ultimately dangerous presidency.”
But on Capitol Hill, no one joined Sasse’s call for a third-party option. And in interviews Tuesday, Republican members avoided passing judgment on Trump.
"We have a nomination process that's ongoing and that process has to play out,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire. “My plans are to support the Republican nominee, but there's obviously a lot of votes happening today and will continue to happen."
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky has reportedly told fellow senators that if Trump is the nominee, they are free to break with Trump openly. Senator Ayotte, locked in a tough reelection fight, is exactly the kind of endangered Republican who may need to take up that option, as the GOP fights to maintain control of the Senate. But for now, most leading party members are lying low and hoping that somehow Trump can be thwarted.
To date, one senator, Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, has endorsed Trump, as have a handful of Republican House members.
Marco Rubio has secured more endorsements from “establishment” Republicans than any other candidate, but that has won him precious little in primaries and caucuses. On Tuesday, Senator Rubio of Florida scored his first victory of the cycle, winning the Minnesota caucuses. And he is certain to stay in the race as he aims to win the Florida primary March 15. Ditto Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has yet to win a contest, but is polling well in the Ohio primary, also on March 15.
Trump won seven out of 11 contests Tuesday, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas won three, including his home state.
Trump gains momentum
Senator Cruz’s victories position him to become Trump’s main opponent going forward, but even that presents a challenge to mainstream Republican leaders. Cruz is a loyal conservative, but his hard-line, no-compromise style has alienated most of his Republican colleagues in the Senate, where he has won no endorsements. In a nomination race between Trump and Cruz, some Republican activists prefer Trump, seeing him as somewhat more electable in November than Cruz.
In any case, it will be hard for Cruz to knock Trump off his path to the nomination. Some Republicans say that, given the still-large field of five candidates, including Ben Carson, the GOP establishment’s best hope is for no candidate to reach the Republican National Convention with the majority of delegates required to secure the nomination. In that event, party leaders would hope to win over enough delegates for a candidate they view as more electable against Clinton, likely Rubio.
But for now, Trump has the momentum, and if he’s the nominee, Republicans face ominous signs that he could have a hard time getting the turnout he needs to win. In the exit polls from Super Tuesday contests, among voters who did not support Trump, three-fourths said they would not be satisfied with him as the nominee. That raises the question of whether such voters would even turn out, or if they did, vote for the Democrat.