Politics & Government

Analysis: Crashing the political parties

In this Tuesday, May 10, 2016 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a campaign rally in Salem, Ore. (Danielle Peterson/Statesman-Journal via AP, File)
In this Tuesday, May 10, 2016 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a campaign rally in Salem, Ore. (Danielle Peterson/Statesman-Journal via AP, File) AP

WASHINGTON -- Outsider candidates -- including socialists, suffragettes, crackpots and a former president who liked to say "Bully!" -- have long been a part of the political landscape.

More often than not, they've been spoilers, or just gadflies.

But this year is different.

The outsiders have come in from the cold. Or, perhaps more accurately, they've forced their way into the tent.

Donald Trump, the unfiltered businessman and former reality show host, defied pundits, polls and the Republican Party establishment to become the GOP's presumptive nominee.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who for decades was a socialist voice in the wilderness, forced front-runner Hillary Clinton more to the left in her campaign rhetoric.

It may be mathematically impossible for Sanders to get enough pledged delegates for the Democratic nomination, but he's still winning states. And every win could translate into more influence when the Democratic platform is hashed out.

"The new group of folks have crashed the party," said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"Not that they weren't there before, but it's as though they were in the servant's corners," said Galston a former adviser to President Bill Clinton. "And now they want to be at the head table."

Frustration with the two-party status quo has repeatedly played out in presidential elections, motivating third-party candidates like Ralph Nader, Ross Perot and John Anderson. Their political trajectories, however, took them far away from party favor and support.

And this campaign cycle?

"The sort of movement that is typically outside the major parties is now inside one of them," Galston said.

Trump faced little in the way of opposition in Nebraska last week. His rivals were still on the ballot, but they had all dropped out of the race. He even got support from some surprising quarters.

Nebraska Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts endorsed Trump at a rally in Omaha. Ricketts' parents contributed significantly to Our Principles PAC, a super PAC that has tried to stop Trump from winning the nomination.

But even with his rivals out of the picture, the billionaire mogul still faces resistance.

The Trump movement has inspired a reactionary movement -- and not just from the establishment that Galston said is now "homeless."

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse is no friend of the mainstream Republican establishment. He's also been Trump's most outspoken GOP critic in the Senate. He has questioned, criticized and condemned Trump on Twitter.

He's among a bloc of Republicans who believe that the answer to saving the party -- and perhaps the country -- is to nominate a "third-way" conservative. That describes a candidate running against Trump who is still conservative at heart.

"Why are we confined to these two terrible options? This is America. If both choices stink, we reject them and go bigger. That's what we do," Sasse wrote in an open letter last week.

Sasse is being encouraged to put himself forward, said Rick Wilson, a prominent Republican consultant in Florida who founded the "Never Trump" movement.

For some in the Republican mainstream, there's little difference between "third way" or "third party." They worry that outsider candidates almost always throw presidential elections to the opposition.

Many Republicans, for example, contend that Ross Perot was a spoiler candidate who handed the 1992 election to Bill Clinton.

"A third party candidate is a step toward helping Hillary Clinton," Republican National Committee Communications Director Sean Spicer told CNN's Wolf Blitzer this month.

Those who support the "Never Trump" movement are less worried about another Clinton in the White House and more concerned that Trump could doom their party's future. They hope a third-way candidate would at least encourage conservative voters to come out on Election Day. And even if their candidate doesn't win, conservative turnout could theoretically help down-ballot Republicans.

But that's not a given.

"It's more likely that dueling presidential candidates would put House and Senate Republican candidates in a perilous spot," the Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote last week.

Another hurdle: actually finding such a candidate. It's impractical, Spicer argued on CNN.

"There is no organization, there's no funding mechanism, and frankly, there's no consensus candidate" he said. "It's not going to happen."

Time, Spicer predicted, will heal the party's wounds.

"Watch what happens and give Donald Trump some time to show what ... how he wants to lead this party," Spicer said ahead of Trump's meeting with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan last week.

Wilson, for one, isn't ready to kiss and make up.

"There are huge blocks of Republicans who loathe him," Wilson said of Trump.

And he's not too fond right now of the party's leadership either.

Wilson said he's recently been reading about the Vichy government, the Nazi's puppet government in unoccupied France during World War II.

"Collaboration" is now a word he uses when he talks about the RNC's embrace of Trump.

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