Donald Trump sewed up the GOP nomination Tuesday despite the clear dangers he poses to his party in November. Polls show him deeply vulnerable against Hillary Clinton, and he could cost Republicans the Senate and, according to some analyses, put their House majority in peril.
But the longer term threat Trump poses to the GOP is in some ways more vexing. After a Trump drubbing, the party could very well be in the exact same position it found itself in in 2008 and 2012, re-litigating a core question: Is the GOP losing because its candidates aren’t conservative enough — or because it’s banking on a narrow, white constituency that is being eclipsed by a growing minority population?
“There was hope there would be some clarity in this election. My fear is that by nominating Trump we may not have that clarity,” says Republican strategist Brian Walsh. “There were some Republicans who were saying when it was between Trump and Cruz that we would rather lose with Cruz, and at least put to rest this false narrative that we lost because the nominee wasn’t conservative enough.”
In failing to stop Trump, the Republican Party may just exacerbate the civil war its been engaged in for most of the last decade.
“We might see a second autopsy only this time it might really be over a dead body,” joked Norm Ornstein, a political commentator and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “You are going to see a real struggle for control over the Republican Party.”
Now, especially with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) officially out of the race, the argument from the right flank of the party will echo choruses coming from the likes of Erick Erickson and Rush Limbaugh in 2008 and 2012: If only Republicans had only nominated a true conservative, a consistent anti-abortion neocon with an impressive history of holding the conservative line on everything from immigration to government spending, the GOP could have won.
A year before Romney lost, Erickson was writing that Romney’s squishiness was going to be the GOP’s downfall in the 2012 election. Romney was a businessman who had flip flopped on abortion and had ushered in his own version of the Affordable Care Act when he was governor of Massachusetts.
“Romney is the silly putty of politicians — press on him real hard and he’ll take on whatever image you press into him until the next group starts pressing,” Erickson wrote in 2011. “Republican billionaires have a fantastic track record of getting Republican opinion leaders to support them and an even better track record at losing elections.”
Adding to the potential for the GOP to have to revisit the same questions that have bedeviled it since John McCain lost in 2008 is the end of uber-conservative Cruz’s campaign Tuesday. In the waning days of his candidacy, Cruz – who once avoided skirmishes with Trump at all costs– was using his air time to outline the clear contrast between his ideological purity and Trump’s off-the-cuff and sometimes downright peculiar policy riffs.
On Tuesday afternoon as some Indiana voters had already made their way to the polls, Cruz held court with the media and derided Trump as an “utterly amoral,” “narcissistic,” “pathological liar,” and a “serial philander.”
“Donald will betray his supporters on every issue. If you care about immigration, Donald is laughing at you,” Cruz warned. “And he’s telling the moneyed elites he doesn’t believe what he’s saying. He’s not going to build a wall.”
Cruz’s put downs Tuesday afternoon couldn’t salvage his 2016 candidacy , but he is positioning himself to lead the conservative faction of the GOP after Trump loses. He is beginning to build his case for an ‘I told you so’ candidacy in 2020.
“People can say whatever they want. The reality of the situation is politics is a game of inclusion not exclusion so unless we are going to include the fastest growing demographic groups in the country, we are not going to win national elections,” says Fred Malek, a Republican fundraiser who is supporting John Kasich.
But a fight over the soul of the party after a general election debacle for Trump could give Cruz a platform once again, Ornstein says. He will have been the last man in the race fighting to save the party from moderate interlopers.
“This may give Cruz traction,” Ornstein says. “You are certainly going to see Cruz type forces, tea party type forces who are going to use a Trump defeat to gain traction for a more radical conservative party and point of view.”
And so the vicious cycle repeats itself.