When 2016 was still a distant speck on the horizon, one of the issues du jour among Republicans was a litmus test for sniffing out RINOs: Would you still back the GOP presidential nominee if it were Donald Trump? With few exceptions, the party establishment responded with a resounding yes.
But since then, Trump ended the running joke of his candidacy by racking up primary win after primary win. Senate Republicans now are grappling seriously with the idea of Trump as their party’s nominee, at least one major GOP candidate is prepping for the possibility of a brokered convention, and pundits are rhetorically asking if anything short of a speeding 18-wheeler can stop the billionaire.
The establishment’s evolution on Trump was brought into sharp relief last Friday when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who went straight for Trump’s jugular when they were both vying for the Republican nomination, endorsed his former rival.
Now the Republicans in crisis fall into roughly three camps: the party loyalists who grudgingly pledge to back Trump if he’s the GOP nominee; the slippery operators who rebuke Trump but are ambiguous when asked whether they’d back him as a nominee; and the emerging #NeverTrump movement of conservatives who say they’d stay home or vote third-party rather than consolidate around the real estate mogul.
Here’s a look at where prominent players in the GOP currently fall.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley
THEN: Nikki Haley, who recently endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) White House bid, took a thinly veiled shot at Trump during her Republican response to the State of the Union address.
“Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory. During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” Haley said during the January address. She also made reference to being “the proud daughter of Indian immigrants,” which was widely read as a nod to Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.
NOW: Last week, Haley said: “We’ve said that we would support the nominee if they get the nomination,” but added about Trump: “we don’t know if he could win a general and that’s a big concern.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI)
THEN: Ryan has largely declined to jump into the 2016 fray. But after Trump announced his now-infamous policy plan to ban Muslims from entering the country, Ryan condemned the proposal, saying it’s “not who we are as a party.”
“This is not conservatism,” Ryan said in December. “Some of our best and biggest allies in this struggle and fight against radical Islam terror are Muslims.”
NOW: Asked in January if he would still back the party nominee if it’s Trump, Ryan was unequivocal: “Of course I will.”
In a press conference on Tuesday, Ryan strongly condemned Trump’s response to an endorsement by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, while saying he would still back the party’s nominee.
“If a person wants to be a nominee of the Republican Party there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry,” he said. “The Republican Party does not prey on people’s prejudices.”
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)
THEN: After Trump said he prefers “people who weren’t captured” in reference to McCain spending more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, the senator slammed Trump for his chummy remarks about Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“For him to provide propaganda, which is really what he just did for Vladimir Putin, who is a thug and a murderer, I think is really astonishing and shows either profound ignorance or an attitude that contradicts everything about the United States of America and our relations with our adversaries,” McCain said in December.
NOW: “I’m a loyal Republican,” he said in a January interview with CBS News. “I disagree with him [Trump] on a number of the statements and positions that he’s taken, obviously. But if that’s the verdict of the Republican Party and the majority of Americans, then I will do everything I can to help that president whether it be Trump or whoever because we are in a state of crisis the likes of which we have not seen.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)
THEN: Cruz, who was on board with the GOP loyalty pledge back in September, has called Trump a “fragile soul” on the campaign trail, hit him for embodying “New York values” and mocked the real estate mogul for whiffing on naming a Bible verse.
NOW: Cruz grudgingly reiterated this weekend that he would still back the party’s nominee even if it is Trump, saying: “I will support the Republican nominee. Period. The end.”
But the senator has also said that Trump would be disastrous as a nominee and “a grave mistake” if elected. He has also said that “if Trump is the nominee, Hillary Clinton wins.”
THEN: While forecasting Trump falling in the polls just after the first GOP debate, Hewitt responded “no” when asked if Trump has the right temperament to be President.
“No. no, he doesn’t,” Hewitt said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in August. “Donald stepped on a lot of important stories.” He went on to say “the loser” of the first debate “was the GOP.”
The Hard-To-Pin-Down Crowd
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
THEN: “You know how you make America great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to hell,” Graham said about Trump’s proposed Muslim ban. “He’s a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.”
NOW: “I’ve got a ticket on the Titanic. So I am like on the team that bought a ticket on the Titanic after we saw the movie. This is what happens if you nominate Trump,” he said in an interview last week when asked if he’d endorse Trump.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)
THEN: Rubio was among the pack of 2016 hopefuls who fell in line last year with the national party’s “loyalty pledge,” which required all the Republican candidates to promise that they would not launch a third-party bid and would support the eventual nominee, whoever that may be.
NOW: After #NeverTrump started trending among conservatives online over the weekend, the Florida senator jumped on board—without committing to breaking the loyalty pledge by refusing to endorse Trump if he’s the nominee.
“Donald Trump is a con artist — and he cannot be our nominee. #NeverTrump” Rubio tweeted on Friday.
THEN: The founder of the conservative site RedState said in September that he would still vote for Trump over Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whom he called an “insufferable douche.” He also said he would vote third-party before backing any ticket that involved Kasich, which Erickson said “would be the death of the GOP a we know it.”
NOW: In a post on his new blog, The Resurgent, headlined “I Will Not Vote For Donald Trump. Ever,” Erickson wrote: “I said and have maintained since his entry into the race that if Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, I would support him. No longer.”
He continued: “A lot of Republicans are going to start making claims that we must rally to the nominee, no matter who he is…I will not rally to Trump. Frankly, if Trump is able to get the nomination, the Republican Party will cease to be the party in which I served as an elected official.”
Glenn Beck, Bill Kristol, Dana Loesch et. al
THEN: A veritable who’s who of conservative operatives and pundits signed on to the National Review’s “Against Trump” issue last month.
“Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself,” they wrote in the magazine’s editorial.
NOW: The National Review crowd has been pretty quiet since taking its splashy anti-Trump stand. But should it come down to a Trump-Clinton general election race, there seems to be an emerging consensus among conservatives that a Clinton presidency, or else some other long-shot, third-party candidate, would be preferable to having Trump represent Republicans in the Oval Office.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE)
THEN: Conservative darling Ben Sasse hasn’t missed a chance to attack Trump, even piling on with conservatives mocking the real estate mogul for his apparently small hands. He’s also called out Trump for his past infidelities.
“You brag abt [sic] many affairs w/ married women. Have you repented? To harmed children & spouses? Do you think it matters?” Sasse tweeted in January.
NOW: The freshman senator joined the #NeverTrump movement with a note posted Sunday on Facebook.
“My current answer for who I would support in a hypothetical matchup between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton is: Neither of them,” Sasse wrote. “I sincerely hope we select one of the other GOP candidates, but if Donald Trump ends up as the GOP nominee, conservatives will need to find a third option.”