Insiders worry the mogul will damage the eventual nominee and hurt a party struggling to connect with women and minorities.
By Jonathan Topaz and Daniel Strauss
All jokes aside, the Republican Party is officially afraid of Donald Trump.
He has virtually zero chance of winning the presidential nomination. But insiders worry that the loud-mouthed mogul is more than just a minor comedic nuisance on cable news; they fret that he’s a loose cannon whose rants about Mexicans and scorched-earth attacks on his rivals will damage the eventual nominee and hurt a party struggling to connect with women and minorities and desperate to win.
“Donald Trump is like watching a roadside accident,” said former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer. “Everybody pulls over to see the mess. And Trump thinks that’s entertainment. But running for president is serious. And the risk for the party is he tarnishes everybody.”
Those risks were amplified this week after a trio of polls showed him likely to earn a coveted invitation to the party’s debates, which ironically were restructured with the very goal of avoiding the circus-like atmosphere of 2012. Giving Trump a major platform just as the country is tuning in is not exactly the Big Tent the party’s bigwigs had in mind..
“I’m not excited about somebody as divisive as Trump or somebody as obnoxious as Trump being on the debate stage,” one RNC member confessed.
Trump currently sits in eighth place among Republicans, according to the RealClearPolitics’ average of national polls — ahead of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. And this week, he came in second in two New Hampshire polls and in a Fox News national poll, finishing behind only former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in all three.
Under the rules instituted by Fox News, the top 10 candidates by national polling average will be included in the first debate, to be held in August. Trump’s star could easily fade by then. But as of now, he would be in — over 2012 Republican runner-up Rick Santorum, who won 11 states and around 4 million votes last cycle; over John Kasich, the popular Ohio governor of a key swing state; over South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a leading foreign policy voice in the field; and over Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, known as a policy wonk.
He’d also make it in over Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO whom the party establishment desperately wants on the debate stage. Fiorina has earned strong reviews from early-state activists, and party insiders say her inclusion in the debate is critical — both to demonstrate the GOP’s diversity and to help male candidates find the right tone in connecting with female voters, whom Republicans have struggled to win over in recent years.
“If Donald Trump elbows out Carly Fiorina, for example, that would be a real tragedy for our side,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.
Beyond that, there are concerns about what he’ll do once he’s on the stage — namely, go hard after the other Republican hopefuls and say incendiary things that will hurt the party.
In recent months, he’s said that Fiorina got “fired viciously” from HP and “got clobbered” in her 2010 California Senate loss to Barbara Boxer (she lost by 10 points.) He’s ripped Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as “very weak” on immigration. He’s called Jeb Bush “an unhappy person” and said he “couldn’t negotiate his way out of a paper bag.”
Asked whether Trump will keep up the attacks, campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said he would. “They should be worried about Donald Trump,” Lewandowski said of the party establishment, before criticizing Rubio and Bush on several issues.
And worried they are.
“There is a real concern, particularly on the debate stage, that Trump won’t play by the rules and he’s going to throw some below-the-belt punches,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.
“Republicans in a primary don’t like to see the candidates attacking each other,” said Peter Feaman, an RNC National Committeeman from Florida. “They’d like to see the focus stay where it should be, and that’s the leadership of the Democratic Party for the last eight years.”
“The challenge with somebody like him is that when you’re running in these races, there’s sort of an assumption that you’re racing with professionals,” said Katie Packer Gage, a former deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney. “He makes up facts. It’s a challenge because he’s very unpredictable.”
And above all the Republican National Committee — whose self-assessment of the party’s failure in 2012 urged the importance of appealing to nonwhite voters, especially Hispanics, 71 percent of whom voted for President Barack Obama — is nervous about Trump’s rhetoric. He accused Mexican immigrants of being rapists and smuggling drugs in his announcement speech, and said at a January Republican cattle call in Iowa that half the undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are criminals. In 2011, he led the racially loaded calls for Obama to release his long-form birth certificate and, in April, blamed the president for the riots in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray.
Fleischer, one of the five co-authors of the RNC autopsy report, said Trump largely embodied all of the party’s problems with nonwhite voters. “When he says something irresponsible like getting Mexicans to pay for a wall, he will alienate Hispanics … he’s irresponsible, he’s divisive, he’s hurtful,” he said.
Asked about those concerns, Lewandowski responded: “Who’s saying this, old white guys? You’re saying you’ve got old white guys saying they’re concerned about Donald Trump’s messaging about illegal immigrants coming across our southern border. Wow, that speaks for itself.”
Several Iowa Republicans expressed dismay at Trump’s momentum, labeling him as someone whose brash personality and celebrity status make him a bad fit for the rural first nominating state.
“Most of the rank-and-file Republicans think, ‘What have we done to let a guy like Donald Trump on the debate stage?’” said one Iowa Republican activist with ties to the party. “When I saw the New Hampshire poll, I was like, ‘Oh my god.’”
“He’s just not Iowa nice,” the person added — relaying several stories about Trump’s recent trips to the Hawkeye State. At two events, the person said, Trump insisted on speaking earlier than scheduled so he could get back to his home in New York City: “It was kind of embarrassing. He left before our donors showed up.” (Lewandowski said he hadn’t seen that at any events in Iowa and touted Trump’s large crowds in the state.)
Party insiders acknowledge that there’s a sliver of voters — those fed up altogether with the political system — who are drawn to Trump. “I love him,” said Jeanne Sangenario, who was on Romney’s New Hampshire women’s leadership team in 2008 and now serves as Seacoast Republican Women director. “Because I know he would take no baloney from anybody from any world leader and he would get things done and the economy would come back big time, he would get it done. No two ways about it.”
Other Republicans say voters will drown him out — particularly in a more formal debate setting where viewers expect a serious discussion.
“I do remember growing up in Kermit [Texas], every time the carnival came to town it always drew a big crowd,” said Republican consultant John Weaver, who worked on Arizona Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and has signed up to work with Kasich. “But nobody wanted the carnival barker to be mayor.”
Hadas Gold contributed to this report.