MANCHESTER, New Hampshire – Republican front-runner Donald Trump took the stage to celebrate his resounding double-digit victory on Tuesday night — not in an alternate reality, not in the fevered nightmares of Republican leaders, but in actual real life.
“We are going to start winning again!” Trump told an adoring crowd. “We are going to win so much. You are going to be so happy.”
Across town at the Radisson Hotel, supporters of Sen. Marco Rubio watched stunned as Trump, the candidate who had called Sen. Ted Cruz a “pu**y” at his final pre-election rally for not endorsing torture, delivered his remarks.
Jeb Golinkin, a 28-year old Rubio volunteer from Houston with a “Marco 2016” button on his North Face jacket, finally broke the silence with an obscenity of his own. Then another one. Then another.
Moments later, Rubio took the stage and the packed room broke out in raucous chants of “Marco!” But there was no denying the results: It was the disaster everyone had feared after Rubio’s debate debacle that weekend.
“Our disappointment tonight is not on you, it's on me,” Rubio, who is likely to finish in fifth place, said. “I did not do well on Saturday night. Listen to this: That will never happen again.”
For a set of Republicans in the room and watching on TV around the country, the results were the worst of all worlds. It wasn’t just that Trump, a candidate many considered unelectable or worse, dominated the race with 35 percent of the vote after 95 percent of precincts were counted. It was the pileup below him — which included underdog John Kasich in second place with 16 percent and an upbeat Jeb Bush narrowly ahead of Rubio in fourth place — that guaranteed no one would leave the state as the sole “establishment” alternative to Trump or Cruz.
“If it continues to stay muddled, it’s advantage Trump,” Kurt Wright, a state representative from neighboring Vermont supporting Rubio, said as he watched the results. “That’s what I’m concerned about tonight.”
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Just one week ago, Rubio seemed better positioned than ever to consolidate mainstream GOP support against the populist Trump and conservative insurgent Cruz, who came in third in New Hampshire. Then the debate happened, at which the young senator running on electability committed the gaffe of the year, repeating the same canned anti-Obama line over and over again as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie mocked his “memorized 25-second speech.”
It was an unforgettable moment. Steve Miller, a 60-year old Christie supporter in a smooth leather jacket, decide to attend Rubio’s event rather than watch his own candidate speak on Tuesday to bask in the senator’s misfortune.
“I just want to see how he reacts,” Miller said. “Christie took him apart.”
Rubio will likely never have to face Christie again, who was on track to finish sixth and told supporters Tuesday night he would consider his options moving forward. But it’s cold comfort in a race that look unsettled as ever heading into the February 20 South Carolina primary, where Trump leads polls and Cruz is confident his popularity with social conservatives will win the day.
Whether the anti-Trump wing finds its champion or not, the party will never be the same. Trump’s populist platform is tapping into something primal within its base. Exit polls showed some 66 percent of New Hampshire voters who turned out for the GOP contest supported his signature proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States for an indefinite period.
For months, supporters have rallied behind his plan to build a massive border fence and deport all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. Along the way, Trump has dragged the GOP field toward nativism, forcing Cruz to abandon his flirtation with legalizing them instead and Rubio on the defensive over his support for legal immigration. He regularly uses insulting language against women and spreads racially charged falsehoods about Latinos and African Americans, all key voting blocs that Republican strategists credited with powering President Obama to victory in 2012.
"I'm frightened by Trump,” Anne Hammer, 44, told MSNBC as she nursed a rum and diet coke at Rubio’s election night party. “I can't stand Hillary, but if it's Trump versus Clinton I don't think I could vote."
Cruz, whose campaign put little stock in winning New Hampshire, looks like a serious threat to win the nomination running by rallying movement activists to adopt a maximalist conservative agenda and threatening any Republican who warns their demands are unattainable. To some in the party, especially those who have worked with him in the senate, Cruz would be just as dangerous to the party’s future.
But who, if anyone, is the alternative?
Among others, Republicans will now have to take a serious look at Kasich, who ran as a champion of bipartisanship, good governance, and neighborly compassion in strong contrast to Trump.
“Maybe just maybe we're turning the page on a dark part of American politics, because tonight the light overcame the darkness of negative campaigning and you made it happen,” Kasich said in his speech on Tuesday.
Then there’s Bush, who has struggled the entire campaign but still has a super PAC with a massive war chest waiting in the wings.
“They said the race was now a three person race between two freshman senators and a reality TV star,” Bush said. "And while the reality TV star still doing well, it looks like you all have reset the race and for that, I am really grateful."
Then there's still Rubio, whose supporters last night still described him as the obvious bridge between the party's warring factions despite his performance. It's not going to be pretty, though. A strategist for a pro-Rubio super PAC told NBC News that they were already planning a new air offensive against Bush, whose own super PAC Right to Rise has spent tens of millions of dollars attacking Rubio.
Whoever it is, any Republican who doesn’t want Trump or Cruz will have to decide soon. After South Carolina, there’s Nevada’s February 23 caucus. Then the first big run of states, the March 1 “SEC primary,” is right around the corner. That gives national Republican leaders and top party donors, who overwhelmingly are not supporting Trump, precious little time to stop them before they reach escape velocity.
“If this does not get down to a two man race before March 15, it will likely become a convention event,” Republican strategist Brad Blakeman told MSNBC. “The party will be divided.”
Alex Jaffe contributed reporting to this story.