- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Republican establishment has watched in horror this primary season as their presidential picks have, one after another, been marched out to slaughter, leaving the party’s leaders in Washington stunned and under growing pressure to give up the fight and rally around the insurgents.

It’s a massive reversal from the past few decades, when an establishment candidate would emerge and, after triumphing in the first couple of months of primaries, conservatives would be told to put down their rhetorical weapons and embrace the establishment candidate. The alternative, conservatives were warned, was to risk a loss to Democrats in the fall.

“The shoe is now on the other foot,” said Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, a leading Christian religious-conservative group.

This year, two anti-establishment Republicans have emerged: Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, who combined have won an overwhelming share of both the votes and the convention delegates.

But establishment figures have been slow to embrace either, fearing for their own grip on power within the Republican Party and warning of electoral disaster if either man is the nominee.

“I think the national contours of Republican politics is up in the air. The script has been flipped, and it being rewritten,” said Larry Jacobs, political science professor at the University of Minnesota. “The tectonic plates of Republican politics have shifted, and, frankly, I don’t know if it is ever going back.”

But Mr. Jacobs also warned that the fact that the party establishment has been toppled in the nomination race is “just part of the story.”

“What happens during the general election?” he said. “There is growing angst among Republican officeholder [as to] what this means. Senate races, statehouse races, these all are going to be impacted if you have a divisive candidate atop the ticket that discourages old-time Republican voters to sit it out.”

Coming into the presidential race, Republican insiders were giddy over the likes of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, backed by a fundraising juggernaut, lining up for the nomination.

They also were pumped up about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich climbing onto the national stage, alongside rising stars like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, whom Republicans thought could bridge the gap between establishment-friendly figures and the grass-roots conservative and tea party activists that helped Republicans flip control of the House and Senate in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections.

Mr. Kasich has lasted the longest — though he has won only a single nomination contest in his home state.

Still, he has hung around in hopes of denying Mr. Trump — who has dubbed Mr. Kasich “1 for 46” — the 1,237 delegates he needs to wrap up the nomination and avoid a contested convention, where some Republicans would hope to steer the nomination away from the New York billionaire and toward a “white knight” of their choosing.

President Obama, speaking at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner over the weekend, poked fun at the jam Republican leaders find themselves in.

“Asked if you wanted steak or fish, a whole bunch of you wrote in [House Speaker] Paul Ryan,” Mr. Obama said with a chuckle, knowing that while Mr. Ryan has taken himself out of consideration, many had cast him in that “white knight” role. “That’s not an option folks — steak or fish. You may not like steak or fish, but that’s your choice.”

Indeed, high-profile Republican figures are torn.

Mr. Romney, who flirted with running a third time before the race began, exemplifies the path of the “Stop Trump” movement.

On Super Tuesday, he explicitly encouraged strategic voting, campaigning with Mr. Kasich in Ohio and recording calls and otherwise “endorsing” Sen. Marco Rubio to voters in his home state of Florida.

Almost immediately after Super Tuesday, he shifted again, backing Mr. Cruz and calling a vote for Mr. Kasich de facto support for Mr. Trump.

Meanwhile, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, whose presidential campaign flamed out early on, over the course of a couple of weeks went from joking about Mr. Cruz’s murder — “if you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you” — to reluctantly embracing him as their best bet to torpedo Mr. Trump.

Former House Speaker John A. Boehner, however, signaled last week that he is more open to Mr. Trump. Mr. Boehner described Mr. Cruz, whose entire campaign is based on the very public way that he has challenged Republican leaders since being elected to the Senate, as “Lucifer in the flesh.”

Mr. Cruz’s image also has been tarnished by the deal he made with Mr. Kasich to make sure their campaigns did not overlap their resources in the hopes of stopping Mr. Trump.

“When Cruz became the vehicle of the ‘Stop Trump‘ movement, he took on a patina of being an insider in a way that kind of stopped him right in his tracks,” said Frank Cannon, president of the American Principles project.

“The thing that has been consistent the whole election cycle has been that people said they want somebody who is outside Washington, who doesn’t have experience, which is the most un-Republican thing that you could possibly say,” he said.

Whatever the case, polls show Mr. Trump is leading Mr. Cruz by double digits ahead of Tuesday’s primary in Indiana, putting him on the verge of notching his 28th win of the primary season. Mr. Cruz has topped the field in 11 contests and has claimed victory in the delegate chase in North Dakota and Colorado.

Trump and Cruz supporters are pressuring the rest of the party to rally behind their candidate.

Mr. Perkins said it is a stark turnaround from 2012, when a member of Mr. Romney’s campaign tried to compel him to support the former Massachusetts governor by asking: Where else do social conservatives go?

“That was the mindset — that conservatives had no place to go, so they had to vote for him,” he said of Mr. Romney. “The establishment, this time it is their turn. Where are they going to go? Are they going to go to Hillary?”

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