WASHINGTON — Republican leaders in Washington have spent years casting tea party allies and hardliners in Congress as merely a restive minority, a fringe element to be tolerated.
Now, with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz rising to the top of the 2016 GOP presidential primary, those party leaders are confronting the possibility that they may be the outliers.
One by one, Washington’s favored candidates have dropped out of the White House race. Those who are left — Marco Rubio and John Kasich — face long odds and sudden-death primaries in their home states next week. In private conversations and public newspaper editorials, talk of a historic splintering of the GOP centers on the prospect of the establishment, not the insurgents, dissolving or breaking away.
“Something important is ending. It is hard to believe what replaces it will be better,” Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, wrote in a Wall Street Journal column.
Republicans have long grappled with a divide between party leaders and grass-roots supporters. Recent presidential elections papered over the fissures rather than resolved them, with Republicans sending centrist candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney into the general election even as the GOP electorate became more conservative.
Leaders expected the 2016 election to follow the same pattern. Money flowed toward former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the son and brother of presidents, who seemed to embody the spirit of inclusiveness GOP leaders called for after Romney’s staggering lack of success with minority voters in 2012. Even when Trump shook up the race last summer, more traditional Republicans confidently predicted his appeal would be short-lived.
But Trump has maintained his grip on the GOP field, with Cruz emerging as his strongest competitor. As establishment favorites like Bush have dropped out, Trump and Cruz’s share of the vote has increased. In a diverse array of states, from Maine to Georgia to Nevada, they’ve carried more than 60 percent.
“It’s a weird election year,” said Trent Lott, the former Mississippi senator who is backing Kasich. “Depending on how this election turns out, the party may be different.”
To some Republicans, that would be welcome.
“For the party to fix itself, you need to destroy the establishment lane,” said Michael Needham, head of Heritage Action, a conservative advocacy group that has pushed for ideological purity among GOP elected officials. “The party that we’ll see 10 years from now is going to share a lot of Trump’s willingness to speak truth to power, to not be cowed by political correctness.”
Trump’s rise in particular has sparked discussions among Washington Republicans about blocking the real estate mogul in a contested convention or perhaps rallying around a third-party candidate who could keep him from the White House.
After flirting with an independent run, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Monday that he would not take that step. He concluded that doing so could make it easier for Trump or Cruz to win the presidency.
“That is not a risk I can take in good conscience,” Bloomberg said in an online post.
Rubio, of Florida, and Kasich, of Ohio, have one last chance to emerge as viable alternatives. Their home states vote on March 15 and offer winner-take-all caches of delegates that could revive sagging candidacies.
Rubio does not plan to leave Florida until after next week’s primary. Campaign officials concede it will be virtually impossible to stay in the race without a home-state win, but have expressed confidence voters will move toward him as primary day draws closers.
But with Florida’s easy access to absentee and early voting, more than 571,000 Republicans have already cast their ballots. With about 2 million people projected to vote, that’s at least one in four Florida GOP voters who can’t be persuaded to change their minds.
Still, campaigns and outside groups are spending heavily on the air in Florida.
The major Republican advertiser is Conservative Solutions PAC, an outside group backing Rubio. The organization has plans to spend more than $4 million on television from March 1-15, according to advertising tracker Kantar Media’s CMAG. American Future Fund, Club for Growth Action and Our Principles PAC are also on deck to spend a combined $4 million attacking Trump before the primary.
Trump’s campaign is spending about $2 million on ads in Florida, as well as $1 million in Ohio, CMAG shows.
Cruz aides are making noise about taking on Rubio in his home state, hoping to block him from winning so Cruz can move to a head-to-head race with Trump. Cruz’s campaign announced plans to open 10 offices in the state and has said the senator will hold events there this week.
On Sunday, an outside group backing Cruz uploaded to YouTube several 30-second videos knocking Rubio as “absent on defense” issues and in the pocket of billionaire sugar industry leaders.
The attack ads are ready-made for television. But as of Monday, the group, called Keep the Promise I, had not reserved any Florida airtime, according to CMAG. Cruz’s campaign also has no Florida commercial time yet.
AP writers Sergio Bustos in Miami, and Julie Bykowicz and Steve Peoples in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC