For much of the political world, it was simply assumed that Republican voters' love affair with Donald Trump was a summer fling that would inevitably fade away. GOP insiders were annoyed with the New York developer's rise, but they also had every confidence that Trump would never seriously compete for their party's nomination.
That confidence is beginning to evaporate. The New York Times reported
overnight that Republicans' "irritation is giving way to panic" as Trump's nomination begins to appear "plausible."
Many leading Republican officials, strategists and donors now say they fear that Mr. Trump's nomination would lead to an electoral wipeout, a sweeping defeat that could undo some of the gains Republicans have made in recent congressional, state and local elections. But in a party that lacks a true leader or anything in the way of consensus -- and with the combative Mr. Trump certain to scorch anyone who takes him on -- a fierce dispute has arisen about what can be done to stop his candidacy and whether anyone should even try. Some of the highest-ranking Republicans in Congress and some of the party's wealthiest and most generous donors have balked at trying to take down Mr. Trump because they fear a public feud with the insult-spewing media figure. Others warn that doing so might backfire at a time of soaring anger toward political insiders. That has led to a standoff of sorts: Almost everyone in the party's upper echelons agrees something must be done, and almost no one is willing to do it.
The entire Times article is well worth your time -- it's filled with some amazing quotes from party insiders and officials who share on-the-record predictions about electoral catastrophes -- and it captures the genuine fear that pervades much of the GOP as December gets underway. There were plenty of similar pieces over the summer and early fall, but at that point, the idea of a Trump nomination was largely academic. Most discounted the possibility that it could actually happen.
But the Iowa caucuses are now less than two months away and the prospect of Trump actually prevailing no longer seems ridiculous. It creates a dynamic with multiple angles:
* Down ballot: Republican insiders aren't just convinced that Trump would lose a general election in a landslide; they also believe he would undermine the party's candidates at every level. This increases the odds of some kind of party-wide revolt, though no one has any idea what that might look like, and there is no obvious anti-Trump standard-bearer for the party to rally behind.
* The search for the silver bullet
: Even if party officials decided to go after Trump with a vengeance, no one in the party knows what, if anything, might bring the frontrunner down. As Rachel noted
on the show last night, there have been previous efforts launched by other Republican presidential hopefuls, but none has had any meaningful effect.
* Third party: And even if GOP officials could find a silver bullet, there's always the possibility that Trump would decide he's been treated unfairly -- he'd probably have a legitimate point -- prompting him to void his party pledge and run as an independent.
* Electability: Party insiders are faced with a challenge for which there is no obvious solution: they see Trump as the least electable candidate, while polls show Republican voters themselves see Trump as the most electable candidate. It's not that the GOP base has decided electability is irrelevant; the trouble for the party is that many of these voters have already decided that Trump is their best bet for victory.
* Lesser evils: One of the funniest parts of the NYT article had less to do with Trump and more to do with one of his rivals.
[S]ome Republicans repelled by Mr. Trump feel little urgency to attack him because, they say, he is preventing what they see as an even less desirable standard-bearer -- Senator Ted Cruz of Texas -- from consolidating the votes of hard-line conservatives. "He's keeping Cruz where he is," Scott Reed, a veteran Republican strategist, said of Mr. Trump.
It's a lingering question that the party may not be able to avoid much longer: which of these two do they hate more?