After months of failing to get off the ground, the GOP’s Stop Trump movement is in a mad dash to throw the frontrunner off his path to the 2016 nomination, and the March 15 primaries set up a major — if not final — deadline.
Republican elites — Mitt Romney chief among them — are angling to block Trump by urging the three remaining non-Trump candidates to stay in the race and harvest delegates in states where they might have an advantage in order to deny Trump the majority of delegates necessary to win the nomination. Marco Rubio’s performance in Florida next week is the plan’s linchpin.
“Given the current delegate selection process, that means that I’d vote for Marco Rubio in Florida and for John Kasich in Ohio, and for Ted Cruz or whoever has the best chance to beat Mr. Trump in a given state,” Romney said, in a major anti-Trump speech last week.
The anti-Trump forces’ idea that Trump can be replaced with an acceptable alternative if the GOP can drag the primary out until a July contested convention is a long shot by their own admission. But the immediate problem is Florida and where Rubio will keep fighting to stop Trump after next week.
“What is his premise of his candidacy if he loses [there]? ‘I am here to stop Trump and try to contribute to him being below 50 percent here and there? That is a tough case to make and those are not great applause lines,” said Ed Rogers, a longtime Republican strategist. “If he loses Florida, his affirmative case in the race is over.”
Some unnamed Rubio backers have even told CNN that there is division among those affiliated with the campaign whether he’s better off dropping out before Florida, for the sake of his political future. (The Rubio camp denied that report.)
After weeks of a Trump domination in Florida polls, Rubio has shown signs of closing the gap. But if he cannot make it across the finish line in time, it’s hard to see how the establishment’s favorite son survives or rationalizes his candidacy after an embarrassing loss at home. Polling shows Trump leading Rubio by nearly 10 percentage points in the state, according to TPM’s PollTracker Average. And while anti-Trump forces are trying to play catchup and pour millions in Florida to keep Rubio viable, it’s still looking like a risky bet.
According to a Politico report, Trump foes have already spent $10 million against the New York billionaire in Florida and sources said they hoped to spend an additional $15 million before next week’s primary. But the state – with its 10 major media markets – is one of the most expensive places in the county to attempt a barrage-style ad campaign against a teflon candidate like Trump who has so far been immune to attacks.
“I do think it gets much harder after March 15,” said David McIntosh, the president for the Club For Growth, which was one of the first organized groups to run ads against Trump. “Winning those winner-takes-all states will be very important.”
Kasich, meanwhile, has a better chance of stopping Trump in winner-take-all Ohio. But without a Rubio win in Florida, Trump still is in striking distance to win the nomination before the convention, as Kasich has lagged in the more moderate Midwestern states where his supporters had argued he would have the upper hand over the New York real estate magnate.
Cruz, a party troublemaker, has bucked any notion of cooperating with a master plan to defeat Trump. And the primary calendar map worsens for him as the race goes on.
“From a math perspective, taking the delegates in Florida and Ohio out of the Trump column really reduces his being on track to get to 1,237. It makes the whole idea of getting to a contested convention a lot more mathematically viable,” said Scott Jennings, a political consultant who was affiliated with Jeb Bush’s campaign, before the former Florida governor dropped out.
Jennings added that aside from the delegate math, a Trump victory over Rubio and/or Kasich also adds to the “momentum argument.”
“So March 15 is a high stakes poker game because you’ve got these winner-take-all states, and you’re going to try to go all in to win them. And, if you lose then you get nothing, other than a bad few days of headlines about how you lost your home state,” Jennings said.
A Florida loss would be crushing for Rubio and the “stop Trump” efforts at large. For one, Rubio will have a tough time justifying his presence in the race, having only won contests Minnesota and Puerto Rico, among the 31 that will have been held by mid-next week. And that could be a pull on fundraising.
“I just don’t think he has enough history with donors. He has been in the Senate for five years,” Rogers said. “I have never seen an account of him having nurtured a small donor base that will stick with him no matter what. He is kind of new to the scene.”
And Florida, with its 99 delegates, was supposed to present the opportunity to take the biggest dent of out Trump’s burgeoning delegate count. Only California has more winner-take-all delegates up for grabs.
Scott Reed, the chief political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, seemed skeptical that the Rubio campaign could stay alive until California.
“They have no infrastructure,” Reed told the Washington Post. “His campaign hasn’t been able to keep up with his candidacy. . . . They don’t have the operation in the states to help him get over the top. He should be a finalist going all the way to California, and he’s not.”