Donald Trump ended the primary season Tuesday much as he began it: engulfed in controversy over his brash personality and controversial remarks about Mexicans.
As the final GOP voters cast presidential primary ballots in California and four other states, Mr. Trump was trying to put out fires he ignited after he said a federal judge was biased because of his Mexican heritage.
The billionaire businessman said his comments were being “misconstrued,” but panic was setting in among fellow Republicans who were bracing for a general election tied to an unpredictable candidate.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Mr. Trump sounded “racist” by questioning Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s impartiality, while Sen. Mark Kirk rescinded his endorsement of Mr. Trump, saying the criticism of the judge was “un-American.” A state senator in Iowa renounced his membership in the GOP completely.
For his part, Mr. Trump said the press had treated him unfairly, treating his attack on the judge as an attack on all Mexicans and Hispanics. He pointed to his Mexican and Hispanic friends and employees as evidence he’s not against Latinos, only Judge Curiel.
“Normally, legal issues in a civil case would be heard in a neutral environment. However, given my unique circumstances as nominee of the Republican Party and the core issues of my campaign that focus on illegal immigration, jobs and unfair trade, I have concerns as to my ability to receive a fair trial,” he said in a lengthy statement.
Up until now, Mr. Trump has defied the pundits that predicted over and over again that his brash personality would eventually lead to his downfall.
“If you said two years ago that Donald Trump was going to be the presumptive nominee and running away with the race, you probably would have been committed to a mental institution,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who worked on Sen. John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “And yet here we are, and part of what has given rise to Trump is an absolute disdain for Washington, D.C., politics and the establishment of the Republican Party.”
Those power brokers in Washington, however, are increasingly struggling with Mr. Trump as their party leader.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell repeatedly fended off reporters’ questions about Mr. Trump on Tuesday, saying there are bigger issues Congress is dealing with.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ryan, attempting to roll out an agenda-setting anti-poverty plan, found himself trying to explain his endorsement last week of Mr. Trump despite the judge controversy. Mr. Ryan said questioning the judge’s impartiality was the “textbook definition of a racist comment.”
“I fundamentally disagree with that,” Mr. Ryan said. “I think it’s wrong.”
The controversy is the latest for Mr. Trump, who began his campaign battling with Macy’s and Univision over his comments about Mexicans, went on to spar with veterans groups after questioning 2008 GOP presidential nominee Mr. McCain’s heroism for his time in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp and saw his campaign rallies interrupted by spates of violence.
He also survived controversial remarks he made about former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina’s face, which led to accusations of sexism. And he called for a ban on Muslim visitors to the U.S. to head off terrorist threats.
Amid it all, Mr. Trump steamrolled his competition. He stood atop the national polls almost wire to wire, and while he placed second in Iowa’s kickoff caucuses, he won New Hampshire’s primary and never relinquished his lead in the delegate count.
“The most valuable asset that Trump had going for him throughout the primary was that he was not a politician,” said Mike Duhaime, a GOP strategist and longtime adviser to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. “Nothing anyone said, including the controversial things he said himself, supplanted that narrative. In many ways, they reinforced this perceived strength with the voters.”
The jury is out, however, on whether Mr. Trump’s remarks will hurt him moving forward.
“What worked in the primaries is not going to work in the general,” said Kevin Sheridan, a GOP strategist. “If Trump is incapable of pivoting to the general election, he will get trounced.”
Larry Jacobs, political science professor at the University of Minnesota, said Mr. Trump cannot rely on personality alone to drive him to victory in a general election campaign, and said he is starting out well behind Mr. Romney and, to a lesser extent, Mr. McCain when it comes to developing the sort of campaign operation needed to win a race for The White House in the modern era.
“It is a very amateurish operation,” Mr. Jacobs said. “I think the biggest damage Trump is going to do is not turning off Republican voters, it is just that he is not showing up with a modern organization that, frankly, the entire party relies on.
“This could be the worst presidential campaign of the modern era, period. That is what it is shaping up as,” he said.
That’s all the more stunning because of Mr. Trump’s performance in the primaries.
Even before Tuesday’s final contests, Mr. Trump had won more than 11.6 million votes, or about 42 percent of the more than 28 million cast during the primary season, according to TheGreenPapers.com.
Mitt Romney won more than 10 million votes, 52 percent of the vote, on his way to winning the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. Mr. McCain won 9.6 million votes, almost 47 percent of those cast in 2008.
It remains to be seen what the record-setting vote totals might mean for Mr. Trump’s general election showdown with Hillary Clinton, who has now sewn up enough commitments to win Democrats’ nomination.
That leaves November’s election as a contest between an unpredictable outsider and the complete insider.
“Trump’s message of outsider taking on the establishment will also resonate in the general election, because Sec. Clinton has been the consummate insider for decades, but it remains to be seen if it can overcome the divisive nature of his rhetoric,” Mr. DuHaime said.
• Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report.