As stopping Donald Trump from winning the GOP nomination becomes more of a long shot, the choice facing anti-Trump Republicans becomes more complicated. They despise Trump. But do they despise him enough to vote for Hillary Clinton, a figure that attracts a singular brand of hatred and opposition from the Republican Party?
That is the reality the GOP’s Trump foes are increasingly being forced to grapple with. For Republicans worried a Trump nomination could forever rupture their party, saying they would support Clinton instead is a particularly bitter pill.
Conservatives have long labeled Clinton a ruthless, power-hungry political-ladder climber, who will ruin the country while fronting the radical agenda pushed by moneyed interests on the left. Their hostility towards her has been on the party front burner for two decades — from the HillaryCare wars of the early 1990s to the Benghazi witch hunt of today — and a world without Republicans’ entrenched hatred of her is almost impossible to imagine. Clinton even bragged at a Democratic debate last fall that “the Republicans” are the enemy she was most proud of having.
But it’s not just the growing likelihood that Trump will be the nominee that is making the choice of her as his alternative more dire. Recent weeks have brought scrutiny over his refusal to disavow KKK leader David Duke and allegations of white supremacists among his supporters. Trump’s rhetoric has grown both graver and even more absurd, while the concerns about violence at his rallies have escalated over the last few days. It’s getting harder for Republicans to say out of one side of their mouth that Trump is a danger to the country, and out of the other that they would still support him as their nominee.
“I don’t know,” a beleaguered Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said this weekend when asked if he would support a Trump GOP ticket.
“I already talked about the fact that I think Hillary Clinton would be terrible for this country,” Rubio continued, “but the fact that you are even me asking that question — I still at this moment continue to intend to support the Republican nominee, but it’s getting harder everyday.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) — one of Trump’s fiercest critics during and after his presidential campaign — has also struggled with the question, telling reporters on Capitol Hill Monday, “Call me after the convention.”
“The one thing I would tell you for sure is I am not going to vote for Hillary Clinton,” he said. Asked if it would be easier to oppose Trump in the general election if Clinton were not the Democratic nominee, Graham said, “I think so. In many ways people see her as the third term of Barack Obama. She is a very polarizing figure in her own nature.”
Bob Inglis, a #NeverTrump former GOP congressman who lost his primary in 2010 against now Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), said in an interview with TPM Monday that nominating Trump will divide the GOP and lead to a breaking apart of the party. But, he cautioned, it should be seen as an opportunity by party leaders, not a schism to be avoided.
“What is going to happen here is that if Donald Trump is the nominee he is going to fly the GOP plane right into the mountainside. But what crashes and burns there is the cranky old party that may not be all that bad,” he said.
For those who mean — seriously — #NeverTrump, a Trump nomination gives them three options: support Clinton, pray for a third party option or sit out all together.
“For this former Republican, and perhaps for others, the only choice will be to vote for Hillary Clinton. The party cannot be saved, but the country still can be,” Robert Kagan, a neoconservative intellectual, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that called Trump the “GOP’s Frankenstein monster.”
Neocon defenders of George W. Bush, like Kagan, have been among the most vocal in their opposition of Trump, who used former President Bush to ruthlessly mock his brother Jeb in the 2016 race. Many of them signed a letter calling Trump “utterly unfitted” to be a commander-in-chief whose election they would work “energetically” to block. But the neocons are split when it comes to voting for Clinton to do so.
Eliot Cohen, an alum of Bush’s State Department, called Clinton “the lesser evil, by a large margin,” in an interview with Politico. He added that a Trump presidency would be an “unmitigated disaster for American foreign policy,” and that, while he was still hoping for a third candidate, he would “probably” support Clinton “if absolutely no alternative.”
Max Boot — a Republican who has advised a number of GOP presidential campaigns — told Vox that Clinton “would be vastly preferable to Trump.’”
“I’m not wild about Hillary, and I think she has a lot of weaknesses,” he said, noting that Rubio was his preference. “But at least Clinton is informed and serious on foreign policy issues.”
Former Bush aide Elliott Abrams meanwhile said he would likely sit such an election out, comparing it the 1972 race between George McGovern and Richard Nixon.
“I may be in the same boat in 2016, unable to vote for Trump or Clinton,” Abrams told Politico. “I could never vote for Clinton under any circumstances.”
Some moderate Republicans have had an easier time coming to terms with the fact that they might cast a ballot in Clinton’s favor. Former New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman has said she will support Clinton over Trump.
“While I certainly don’t want four more years of another Clinton administration or more years of the Obama administration, I would take that over the kind of damage that I think that Donald Trump could do to this country, to its reputation, to the people of this country,” she told Bloomberg.
Former Republican senator and ex-RNC chair Mel Martinez (R-FL), meanwhile, told the Wall Street Journal he could have supported a Democratic ticket led by Vice President Joe Biden over Trump, but ruled out voting for Clinton.
That attitude leaves many Republicans crossing their fingers for some other alternative option.
“Who my choice may be if Donald Trump is the standard-bearer under the rules of the Republican Party, I do not know,” former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN) wrote in an op-ed “I know it won’t be Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. And I know it will never be Donald Trump.”
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) — a leading Republican voice in the Stop Trump movement — said he on Twitter was looking for “some 3rd candidate — a conservative option, a Constitutionalist.”
Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense under Bush, told TPM through a representative that he agreed with Sasse.
Bill Kristol, another neocon, meanwhile, told the New Yorker that Dick Cheney-Tom Cotton ticket would be the “ideal,” and that he was “working on others that approach that high level.’”
Mitt Romney aide Kevin Madden told the Washington Post that in the event of a Trump nomination he would be “prepared to write somebody in so that I have a clear conscience.”
More than just a matter of personal conscience, some Republicans believe their party has a better shot of surviving under a Clinton presidency than if Trump spends four or eight years as leader of their party.
“If forced into a choice between Clinton and Trump, I will prefer Hillary Clinton. The future of the entire conservative movement is at stake, and a Clinton victory over Trump might be the only hope of saving it,” conservative writer Tom Nichols wrote in The Federalist.
“Conservatives can recover from four, or even eight, years of Hillary Clinton,” he continued. Pointing to the wave of legislative seats the GOP won under Obama’s two terms, he added, “We might even flourish.”