By Philip Rucker and Robert Costa
The Washington Post
Less than three months before the kickoff Iowa caucuses, there is growing anxiety bordering on panic among Republican elites about the dominance and durability of Donald Trump and Ben Carson and widespread bewilderment over how to defeat them.
Party leaders and donors fear that nominating either man would have negative ramifications for the GOP ticket up and down the ballot, virtually ensuring a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidency and increasing the odds that the Senate falls back into Democratic hands.
The party establishment is paralyzed. Big money is still on the sidelines. No consensus alternative to the outsiders has emerged from the pack of governors and senators running, and there is disagreement about how to prosecute the case against them. Recent focus groups of Trump supporters inIowa and New Hampshire commissioned by rival campaigns revealed no silver bullet.
In normal times, the way forward would be obvious. The wannabes would launch concerted campaigns, including television attack ads, against the front-runners.
But even if the other candidates had a sense of what might work this year, it is unclear if it would accrue to their benefit. Trump’s counterpunches have been withering, while Carson’s appeal to the base is spiritual, not merely political. Even if someone were able to do damage to them, there’s no telling who their supporters would turn to, if anyone.
“The rest of the field is still wishing upon a star that Trump and Carson are going to self-destruct,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a former adviser to 2012 nominee Mitt Romney. But, he said, “they have to be made to self-destruct. … Nothing has happened at this point to dislodge Trump or Carson.”
According to other Republicans, some in the party establishment are so desperate to change the dynamic that they are talking anew about drafting Romney – despite his insistence that he will not run again. Friends have mapped out a strategy for a late entry to pick up delegates and vie for the nomination in a convention fight, according to the Republicans, who were briefed on the talks, though Romney has shown no indication of reviving his interest.
For months now, the GOP professional class assumed Trump and Carson would fade with time. Voters would get serious, the thinking went, after seeing the outsiders share a stage with more experienced politicians at the first debate.
None of that happened, of course, leaving establishment figures disoriented.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley explained the phenomenon.
“You have a lot of people who were told that if we got a majority in the House and a majority in the Senate, then life was gonna be great,” she said Thursday. “What you’re seeing is that people are angry. … They’re saying, ‘Look, what you said would happen didn’t happen, so we’re going to go with anyone who hasn’t been elected.’ ”
Charlie Black, who has advised presidential campaigns since the 1970s, said he believes the 2016 contest “will eventually fall into the normal pattern of one outsider and one insider, and historically the insider always wins.”
Black said he was briefed on the findings of two recent private focus groups of Trump supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire that showed these voters knew little about his policy views beyond immigration.
“Things like universal health care and other more liberal positions he’s taken in the past will all get out before people vote in New Hampshire,” he said. Black said the focus groups were commissioned by two rival campaigns, but he was not authorized to identify them.
One well-funded outside group, the Club for Growth, has aired ads attacking Trump in Iowa and more recently came out against Carson as well. “Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson are in over their heads,” said Club for Growth President David McIntosh, labeling both men as “pretenders.”
Still, the party establishment’s greatest weapon – big money – is partly on the shelf. Kenneth Langone, a founder of Home Depot and a billionaire supporter of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, said he is troubled that many associates in the New York financial community have so far refused to invest in a campaign due to the race’s volatility.
“Some of them are in, but too many are still saying, ‘I’ll wait to see how this all breaks,’ ” Langone said.
The concern among some party elites goes beyond electability, according to one Republican strategist, who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about the worries.
“We’re potentially careening down this road of nominating somebody who frankly isn’t fit to be president in terms of the basic ability and temperament to do the job,” this strategist said.
“It’s not just that it could be somebody Hillary could destroy electorally, but what if Hillary hits a banana peel and this person becomes president?”
Concern about Trump intensified last week after he made two comments that could prove damaging in a general election. First, he explained his opposition to raising the minimum wage by saying “wages are too high.” Second, he said he would create a federal “deportation force” to remove the more than 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.
“To have a leading candidate propose a new federal police force that is going to flush out illegal immigrants across the nation? That’s very disturbing and concerning to me about where that leads Republicans across the board,” said Dick Wadhams, a former GOP chairman in Colorado, a swing state where Republicans are trying to pick up a Senate seat next year.
Said Austin Barbour, a veteran operative and fundraiser now advising former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush: “If we don’t have the right (nominee), we could lose the Senate and we could face losses in the House. Those are very, very real concerns.
“If we’re not careful and we nominate Trump, we’re looking at a race like Barry Goldwater in 1964 or George McGovern in 1972, getting beat up across the board because of our nominee.”
“If we don’t have the right (nominee), we could lose the Senate and we could face losses in the House. Those are very, very real concerns.”
– Austin Barbour, veteran operative now advising Jeb Bush