“It’s a five-alarm fire,” he remarked. And no one is coming to put it out.”
“It” in this scenario refers to the potential that Donald Trump may once again triumph over a fractured Republican field, garnering the same 30-40 percent he garnered in the early primaries in 2016, enough to clinch the nomination. “He” is a Republican donor and bundler, a Wall Street banker who often mingles with senior Republican officials but was also an early and passionate backer of Trump, which is unusual for his tribe. His request for anonymity reflects the strangeness of this political moment, in which even former staunch supporters of the former president are hesitant to say aloud what they and their cohort all say privately: that if the former president wins the primary again, he will almost certainly lose to Joe Biden, even though some polls show him leading his 2020 opponent.
It is a comment echoed in interviews with dozens of Republican party members, donors, strategists, and grassroots leaders, many of whom say it is the private conversation they are all having — how to ensure that Trump does not once again take advantage of a split field and walk away with the Republican nomination, costing the party not only the presidency but also the chance to retake the Senate and hold on to the House. Just this week, the Koch Brothers-affiliated Americans For Prosperity and the anti-tax behemoth Club for Growth declared their intention to unite behind a Trump replacement. With the Iowa Caucus only 11 months away, party officials say they need to find a solution to this dilemma – how to stop Trump — before too many candidates enter the race.
It’s also a conversation that many people have had before. Senior Republicans were concerned in 2016 that having Trump at the head of the ticket would mean disaster. “We will be decimated if we nominate Trump,” subsequent Trump devotee Lindsey Graham famously tweeted. “And we will have earned it.” Those fears were unjustified, of course, as Trump triumphed over a divided Republican field and then defeated Hillary Clinton while Republicans controlled the House and Senate. But few Republicans believe Trump can pull it off again this time, not after spending the last three years whining about 2020, and especially not after his hand-picked candidates were thrashed in the midterms.
Back in 2020, Democrats’ mantra was “electability,” as the drive to defeat Trump trumped all other concerns or considerations, including philosophy, vision, competence, and style. And the winner of the “electability” primary, at least according to funders and liberal pundits, was Joe Biden, who led to most of his challengers stepping out and backing him while still trailing Bernie Sanders in the delegate count. Republicans are now hoping for a similar dynamic on their side this year, and that even Trump supporters recognise the stakes. Requests for response from Trump were not returned.
“I don’t think it’s fair to call Donald Trump a damaged candidate,” said Eric Levine, a major Republican fundraiser who has urged the party to move on from Trump since the 2020 election and the Capitol rebellion. “He is a metastasizing cancer that, if not halted, would destroy the party. Donald Trump is a failure. He is the only president since Herbert Hoover to lose the House, Senate, and presidency all in the same term. Chuck Schumer is the Leader Schumer because of him, and the progressive agenda is threatening to take over the country. And he’s probably the only Republican, if not the only person, in the country who can’t beat Joe Biden.”
The main concern among contributors like Levine and other party players is that, as in 2016, a bunch of Trump rivals would enter the primary and linger too long, splitting the field and allowing Trump to win. And some of these prominent Republicans are meeting with possible candidates and advising them that if they want to run, they should do so — but that they should also be prepared to drop out well before the election in order for the GOP to put out its best candidate against Biden.
“I’m concerned, but experience is a terrific teacher, and there’s no education in a mule’s second kick,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist and veteran advisor to Senator Mitch McConnell. “My hope is that anyone considering running for president right now are thinking about what is best for the party.”
Bob Vander Plaats, head of The Family Leader, a socially conservative advocacy group, is one of the Iowa Caucus’ most sought-after endorsers. He stated that he is talking to each possible contender about the need of not overstaying their welcome in the contest.
“I tell them that there is an open and fair playing field here in the state of Iowa, and that we will introduce you to our base and provide you all kinds of opportunity to introduce yourself. And if you feel compelled to run for president, I am the last person to urge you not to.
“But,” he points out. “Do not listen to your advisors, who have a strong interest in keeping you there. I can advise you on whether or not to stay.”
“They all agree immediately,” he added.
Leading donors who have met with top non-Trump prospects like Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, and Mike Pence say they all get it, that none of them want to be the spoiler, and that they understand the perils of a Trump Redux for the party, if not the country. These funders cite the probable candidate’s public statements and recent autobiographies, all of which are critical of Trump in some way.
“Does Mike Pence really want his legacy to be that he received 4% of the vote and helped elect Donald Trump?” one aide to a major Republican donor asked. “The same goes for [Mike] Pompeo and [Nikki] Haley. They want to gain traction, of course, but there is a greater incentive to withdraw sooner based on what it would entail for the country and the party.”
However, if the Haleys and Pompeos of the world wind up running, it is to win, and despite what they tell donors now, once they start getting a warm response on the campaign trail, it can be difficult to stop. “Everyone on every campaign says, ‘Why is it our obligation to prevent Donald Trump from winning?'” Republican strategist Dave Carney asked. “There are some people who are simply running to sell books, but the majority of people who are looking into this are doing so because they believe there is a way for them to win.”
Trump appears to grasp the benefit of a crowded field, remaining silent even as some of his former closest advisers consider their own runs, and focusing his attention instead on Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who is leading him in some polls. Trump has been hesitant to bite the bait as his former UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, mocks her former boss by calling for a “new generation” of leadership. Trump being Trump, so he has retaliated on occasion, but he has also stated publicly that Haley “should do it,” indicating that, as former South Carolina Republican Party head Katon Dawson put it, “Trump has a solid 31 [percent]” support. In a large field, a strong 31 can propel you to the nomination. The only way to beat Hitler is for some of these people to band together.”