Senate Republicans seem to have gotten the message from Donald Trump’s surging campaign: what they do doesn’t matter, and indeed might be harmful to the establishment’s goal of denying the wealthy businessman the presidential nomination.
After Trump’s commanding sweep in the Super Tuesday primaries, several Republican senators – many up for reelection this year – appeared resigned to their own inability to stop him.
Despite some vague talk of rallying around a Trump alternative, Capitol Hill Republicans said Wednesday that no such effort is afoot and that anyone in Washington trying to execute such a plan was on a fool’s errand, given the national anti-establishment winds blowing among conservative voters.
“One of the reasons there’s not a whole lot of pressure to do something here is there’s a general sense that’s there’s probably not a whole lot you can do,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, a member of the leadership facing re-election in the fall.
Blunt pointed to an unsurprising conundrum given the angry mood of GOP voters: Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have thus far garnered the fewest endorsements from their colleagues, while Sen. Marco Rubio’s, R-Florida, likability has won him the most Hill support but left him a distant third in the delegate chase.
“Nobody thinks our involvement is particularly helpful, as it might’ve once been,” Blunt said.
According to one Republican, a roughly 75-minute meeting of the Senate Republican caucus on Wednesday in a room just off the Senate floor did not produce any discussion about the presidential race or its effect on the GOP ability’s to hold the Senate majority. Instead, the talk focused entirely on the budget process for the remainder of this year.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, one of the most endangered incumbents up for re-election this fall, echoed Blunt’s sentiment, explaining that dissatisfied conservatives don’t want to see a well-orchestrated plan from Washington to block any particular candidate’s path to becoming the GOP standard-bearer.
“Look at how really ineffectual these endorsements have been. Again, there is a movement in this country, and it’s been building for quite some time about people’s level of disgust, and that’s what you’re seeing play out here,” Johnson explained.
“And I’m sure the voice of one senator isn’t going to do anything to change that mood,” said Johnson, who, like Blunt, has chosen not to support a 2016 candidate.
Arizona GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, a Rubio supporter, summed up congressional Republicans’ dilemma this way: “From a group that has about, what, nine percent favorables right now, for us to go tell people how to vote, probably don’t make that much difference, frankly.”
“But some of us feel we have a responsibility to speak out when he makes outlandish or crazy statements.”
The only senator who seemed poised to try to lead such an anti-Trump effort, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, expanded on brief comments made on CBS News’ late Tuesday suggesting after Rubio’s disappointing finish on Super Tuesday, Cruz was the best option for the party to rally around.
But on Wednesday, Graham said that Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich should remain in the race in a bid to try to win their respective home states on March 15, which will produce massive delegate hauls with the race moving to the winner-take-all stage. “I’m pulling for everybody,” Graham told reporters.
At this point, Graham said, the establishment’s best hope may be betting on an unpredictable scenario, especially if Rubio and Kasich win their home states after Cruz took Texas on Tuesday: the three elected officials left in the contest would ultimately band together and forge an understanding in which two of them stand down and throw their support, and hopefully their delegates, to the one candidate best positioned to take down Trump in a long, politically bloody battle throughout the remaining few dozen primaries.
Some senators reported that there wasn’t even much of an effort from the remaining campaigns to secure their endorsement.
Despite Missouri’s March 15 primary fast approaching, Blunt said he has only heard from what he perceived as perfunctory check-ins from emissaries to the candidates.
“More from surrogates than the candidates themselves, and I always had the impression that it was just going down a list,” he said.
Yet aside from the presidential contest, House and Senate Republicans will need to craft a strategy to respond to Trump’s various controversial comments and blunt the impact on their own campaigns.
In the latest kerfuffle, the businessman’s lukewarm condemnation of David Duke and the KKK drew a rebuke from House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, saying “this party does not prey on people’s prejudices.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, was equally blunt, saying Tuesday: “Let me make it perfectly clear: Senate Republicans condemn David Duke, the KKK, and his racism.”
But when asked about Trump’s Tuesday comment that Ryan would pay a “big price” if he didn’t get along with him as president, a Ryan spokeswoman responded: “We’ll pass on that.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Paul Kane / PHOTO - Maddie McGarvey for The Washington Post