A year ago, it would have been tough to find more rabid Ted Cruz supporters than “Cruz Crew” button wearers Michael and Susan Najvar of Texas.
At this year’s Conservative Political Action Convention?
Michael proudly wears a red, “Make America Great Again” trucker’s hat and matching navy T-shirt with a simple proclamation: “Trump for President.”
He flips through photos in his phone that he took of the marble hallways leading to the bathrooms at one of Trump’s towering buildings. He recalls the polished brass in another one, clear enough for his wife to fix her make up in its reflection.
He is so over Cruz.
“The man lies about certain things,” Michael says of Cruz. “He can’t do it. If he was the president, the Senate would not do anything he said to do.”
CPAC – with its conservative radio booths, three-point-hat wearing tea partiers, crowded halls of party activists and student enthusiasts– is a magnet for the party’s base. It is the pulse of a Republican Party that seems to be turning over on itself and rejecting the status quo for a radical change they believe can be found in a billionaire named Trump.
The CPAC crowd has always attracted a strong libertarian strain of Republican voters, due in some part to the young crowd of college students who attend. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) won the straw poll for three years in a row here. His father Ron Paul won it before that. But 2016 is different. Voters are beginning to come around to a New York businessman who wasn’t even on their radar a year ago, a man who has no record of ever fighting for the values they proclaim are so dear. Some are supporting Trump with fervor after electing a Republican House and Senate they believe has fallen short of their expectations. But even those reluctant about Trump have begun recognizing and rationalizing that Trump is going to be their nominee.
And, they will happily vote for him over Hillary Clinton.
“I think Trump is going to walk in … I think giving a businessman a chance to run this damn country … it’s probably time actually,” said Jane Becker, a 73-year-old from Gainesville, Virginia, who supported Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) on Super Tuesday just two days ago.
Becker, a former Marine, says she’s been offended at times by Trump’s off-the-cuff rhetoric, especially a comment Trump made about Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). “He’s a war hero because he was captured,” Trump said last year. “I like people who weren’t captured.”
But, at this point, Becker believes it is time for the party to find some kind of consensus and move forward against Democrats.
“I don’t think anybody understands his rise do we? Other than this generation votes for the American Idol,” Becker says. “Nowadays you play the sax on the Tonight Show, it’s personality and stuff . They are not really looking at who would really be the best politician or who would be the best president. They look at who they like.”
At CPAC, attendees on the fence about Trump are trying to get to ‘yes’ on the man that looks to be their party’s inevitable nominee. Conservative voters put off by Trump’s most extreme positions on immigration or his tone toward Muslims dismiss his fiery declarations as an insincere phrase concocted in an era of show biz politics. Evangelical voters trying to rationalize a Trump vote with their faith look at Trump’s past liberal positions on abortion or his three marriages and remind themselves the Bible teaches forgiveness.
“We got to go for him. Have to,” says Timothy Goodwin, a 60-year-old South Dakotan and self-identifying evangelical voter. “He’s been married three times, he’s went bankrupt four times … the biggest thing about being a Christian is forgiveness, and if he’s found the Lord and turned into a good Christian person, I mean who are we to judge?”
Even on conservatives’ biggest questions about Trump’s qualifications to run the country, Republicans at CPAC have begun telling themselves that Trump will build a strong team to assist him in areas he doesn’t know well be it foreign policy or negotiations with Congress.
“He will surround himself with really good people. He won’t do it all himself,” Goodwin insisted.
“Rumor is Trump is going to pick Newt Gingrich to be his chief of staff,” Michael Najvar said.
Younger voters at CPAC seemed to be the most uneasy about Trump’s rise. Some worried about Trump’s lack of specificity. Others feared he could be a liability for the United States on a global stage.
Lindsey Rider, a 20-year-old student and Cruz supporter at Florida Gulf Coast University, said initially she was drawn to Trump, his business acumen and his aggression. But, as time has gone on she says she’s come to realize that “he’s just not practical.”
“I think he has good ideas about immigration and national security, but the way he would go about it isn’t reasonable,” she said. “You can’t just bomb other countries. We have to do business with these countries, and you can disagree, but in a respectful way.”
Against Clinton, however, Rider says she is still going to support Trump in the general election.
“I would vote for him. I would,” Rider said. “There is a process. He can say all these things, but if it is not approved by [the] Senate and Congress … I don’t think it would even be possible.”
The Republican Party’s past standard-bearers took an unprecedented step Thursday and publicly admonished the man leading the race for their party’s nomination. Mitt Romney said that Trump was channeling “the very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss.” He declared that “dishonesty is Donald Trump’s hallmark.” McCain released a statement just minutes later following suit. At CPAC, however, Romney was always a polarizing figure, a candidate some reluctantly backed in 2012 in hopes of unseating Obama. Yet, he never captured the base’s imagination. And his attacks against Trump don’t hold much water. If anything, they have an opposite effect, pushing fed-up conservative voters into Trump’s arms.
CPAC seems to be reluctantly embracing the new face of their party, and even those still opposed say they appreciate what he’s done for them.
“Honestly, he is pretty much a clown. I am not real sure he is going to do what he says he is going to do. The thing is he sparked a movement because he spoke up and nobody else has spoken up,” said Donna Shoulders, who said Cruz is still her first choice. “Now everybody is jumping on his bandwagon because they think he is a liberator or something.”