Politics & Government

Republicans face a critical moment: Accept Trump as their nominee or go rogue

FILE - In this Sunday, May 1, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reacts to a song during a campaign rally at the Indiana Theater in Terre Haute, Ind. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
FILE - In this Sunday, May 1, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reacts to a song during a campaign rally at the Indiana Theater in Terre Haute, Ind. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman) AP

Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Republicans awoke Wednesday to Donald Trump as their presumed presidential nominee with an uncomfortable mix of resignation, denial and resistance that leaves the GOP in a new state of turmoil.

Party leaders pleaded for GOP unity. Governors and prominent party strategists piled on a show of support for the likely nominee. So did some tea party activists.

But the detractors were just as determined in their continued search for an alternative. Talk of third-party candidates continued to float. Big-money campaign backers, including the Koch brothers and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, have yet to announce support, and strategists noted that 2012 nominee Mitt Romney has been particularly quiet.

That left the GOP in a worrisome state after an otherwise decisive Indiana primary Tuesday as the already long and divisive nominating process heads to an uncertain conclusion.

"The final stage is acceptance, which I think a lot of people will get to after Indiana," said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist unaligned with any candidate.

But, he added: "I don't think we're going to see a seismic shift in people supporting Trump."

Wednesday brought a jammed schedule of conference calls and hand-wringing as party activists and outside groups scrambled after Indiana.

Trump's rout of his main rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, led the Texan to bow out of the race, essentially clearing a path for Trump to amass the 1,237 delegates needed for the nomination in the remaining primary contests. And Trump's final remaining opponent, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, will end his campaign later Wednesday, a senior adviser said.

That leaves the party facing a defining moment.

Does the Republican establishment unite behind a candidate who many say is not conservative enough, not presidential enough and with too narrow of an appeal to be their nominee?

Or do they begin to work with Team Trump to try to influence a candidate who has energized the GOP electorate like no other and could rearrange the electoral map against Democrats this fall?

"You know what? I think something different and something new is probably good for our party," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said on CNN.

"Look, we're here. We're going to get behind the presumptive nominee," he said. "I don't think that's necessarily bad."

Shawn Steel, an RNC member from California, said he was "moderately surprised" by how quickly he accepted Trump's status change to presumptive nominee.

"I thought I'd be really miserable and despondent," Steel said. "But it's kind of exciting. I'm going to go along for the ride."

Like other Republicans who are coming around to a Trump nomination, Steel, a former chairman of the California GOP, said his newfound approval of Trump came from imagining a hypothetical President Hillary Clinton.

"Hillary is the third term of the Obama administration. That's the worst nightmare in the world" for conservative Republicans, Steel said.

But Cruz, in dropping out of the race, declined to congratulate or endorse Trump, and other longtime conservative leaders were just as resistant.

A top conservative radio show host in Iowa, Steve Deace, said he would be changing his party affiliation Wednesday, leaving the GOP.

Mark Salter, a longtime former aide to Arizona Sen. John McCain, a former presidential nominee, summed up what many Republicans see as a preferred alternative when he tweeted, "I'm with her" -- Clinton's campaign slogan.

"Never means never," said Rory Cooper, a spokesman for the so-called Never Trump movement, who said the group was assessing its options.

Trump is still short on delegates needed to clinch the nomination, and ample time remains for him to "disqualify" himself before the final primary next month in California, said Katie Packer, the chairman of Our Principles PAC, which has also fought Trump's rise.

"We continue to give voice to the belief of so many Republicans that Trump is not a conservative, does not represent the values of the Republican Party, cannot beat Hillary Clinton, and is simply unfit to be president of the United States," she said in a statement.

"We will continue to educate voters about Trump until he, or another candidate, wins the support of a majority of delegates to the convention."

And, perhaps more noteworthy, the big GOP donors who fuel political campaigns have remained on the sidelines.

Trump has dipped into his own pocket for primary expenses, but strategists doubt he will self-fund a general election campaign that would stretch into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

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A super PAC supporting Trump, Great America, was among those attending a hastily called meeting Wednesday to assess the situation. The group tapped a longtime GOP operative, Ed Rollins, once a top adviser to President Ronald Reagan, to help lead its efforts.

Meanwhile, down-ballot Republicans were being saturated with a barrage of attacks Wednesday aligning the senators and representatives with Trump.

Many lawmakers face their own tough re-elections in the fall, when control of the House and Senate will be determined, and they face a delicate balance over running with their party -- or away from it.

"Politicians are going to be looking to save their own skin," said Rick Tyler, a former top Cruz aide. "If that means distancing themselves from Trump, they'll do that."

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(Staff writers Melanie Mason in Indianapolis and Seema Mehta in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

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