Donald Trump is on the verge of winning the Republican nomination, and the GOP is plummeting into a civil war that promises to redefine the party -- or destroy it entirely.
That’s the only story that matters coming out of Super Tuesday, a night in which Trump dominated a diverse coalition of states from deep blue Massachusetts to deep red Alabama.
By the time the real estate titan held a celebratory press conference at his lavish Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, it was already clear he had won by landslide margins in Georgia and Tennessee, as well as narrowly in Virginia. The networks would call Arkansas for him within the hour.
Speaking in front of a row golden flagpoles that resembled the White House’s East Room, Trump sounded ready for the general election, taking potshots at Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and pledging to be a “unifier” who would heal the fractured GOP and a “common sense conservative” who could bring in new voters.
But the deep wounds that his candidacy had torn open within the party were on full display at his event, starting with the fallout over his ongoing flirtation with racist and extreme groups and causes.
Earlier in the day, House Speaker Paul Ryan, who was also the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, called out Trump for failing to condemn support from the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke in a CNN interview, which he later blamed on a faulty earpiece.
Trump responded on Tuesday night asking “how many times” he had to disavow racist backers and threatening Ryan with retaliation if the Wisconsin lawmaker failed to advance his agenda as president.
“Paul Ryan, I don’t know him well but I'm sure I'm going to get along great with him," Trump said. "And if I don’t, he’s going to have to pay a big price, OK?”
To the horror of Trump’s critics on the right, Tuesday’s results provided little impetus for either Sens. Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz to drop out and form a united anti-Trump front. Even Ohio Gov. John Kasich found a tiny bright spot in Vermont, where he fought Trump, the apparent winner, to a near-draw. Now Trump is likely to head into critical winner-take-all contests in Ohio and Florida on March 15 still facing a split field, giving him a chance to effectively put the race away.
Cruz was able to claim victory in his home base of Texas and neighboring Oklahoma, but floundered elsewhere. It was especially disappointing because his campaign had highlighted the South for months as the most critical part of its electoral map. Cruz's path to the nomination without a divided convention is closing fast.
But things went even worse for Rubio. He won Minnesota’s GOP caucus – his first victory of the race -- and came close to beating Trump in Virginia, but struggled to meet viability thresholds in key southern states. After a week in which he belatedly tried to assume the role of Trump’s leading antagonist, the results confirmed that his effort had fallen far short of derailing the front-runner.
Cruz used his Tuesday night speech to urge his rivals to “prayerfully consider” dropping out and give him a clean shot at Trump, whom the senator warned “would be a disaster for Republicans, for conservatives, and for the nation.”
Rubio pledged to continue with an eye toward winning Florida, however, while his campaign argued that Cruz had underperformed in his best states and lacked the broad appeal necessary to rally the party against Trump.
“No matter how long it takes, no matter how many states it takes, no matter how many weeks and months it takes, I will campaign as long as it takes and wherever it takes to ensure that I am the next President of the United States,” Rubio said.
At this point it’s looking like it will take a contested convention, in which no candidate has a majority of delegates, to oust Trump. With that scenario in mind, anti-Trump Republicans seemed split on Tuesday between whether it would be better to try and consolidate behind one candidate or encourage candidates to remain in the race to have a better chance of denying Trump an outright majority. Some recent polls have shown Trump leading nationally among Republicans even if the race shrinks down to two men.
If Republicans can’t hobble Trump soon, however, he'll secure the nomination outright and put significant pressure on rank-and-file Republicans to endorse him. For the first time, a handful of elected officials have begun to support him in recent days, most notably New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who introduced him in Florida on Tuesday night.
At the same time, an array of longtime party activists and elected officials have sworn never to vote for Trump under any circumstances – even if it means letting a Democrat win while a generation-defining Supreme Court vacancy hangs in the balance. Trump's critics view him as singularly unqualified to hold office, divorced from the conservative movement’s agenda on issues like Planned Parenthood and health care, habitually dishonest, and contemptuous of even the most basic social and democratic norms.
Recently, Trump has threatened to water down libel laws to intimidate the press with litigation. He has enthusiastically endorsed the use of torture and repeatedly cited an apocryphal story about an American general summarily executing dozens of Muslim prisoners with bullets coated in pig blood as a model for national security policy.
The Republican National Committee, in a telling omission, made no mention of its own candidates in their statement on Tuesday’s results, instead criticizing the Democrats while touting high overall turnout.
Democrats are increasingly working under the assumption Trump will be the nominee. Hillary Clinton has criticized him in recent speeches while her allies are testing general election messages that they hope can contain his populist appeal, scare the Democratic base turning out, and peel off anti-Trump Republicans. On Tuesday, a Democratic polling firm run by James Carville and Stan Greenberg released a memo predicting an "explosive civil war inside the GOP [that] can move significant numbers of voters out of the Republican camp" under Trump.
“America never stopped being great, we need to make America whole, we have to fill in what’s been hollowed out,” Clinton said in her own victory speech on Tuesday, a reference to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.