They were defeated in the primaries, failed to stop Donald Trump at the convention, and now the “never Trump” forces within the GOP are having to come to grips with what they’ll actually do when they enter the polling booth in November.
Few say they’ll pull the lever for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, but neither Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson nor Evan McMullin, an independent conservative offering himself as the unofficial GOP choice, are earning groundswell support.
Some of the anti-Trump forces say they’re so frustrated, they’ll stay home on Election Day — unless it looks like doing so would help Mr. Trump, in which case they’ll turn out to give Mrs. Clinton a boost over him.
“I will maintain my high moral principles about not voting for [her], unless it looks like Trump might carry Florida, in which case I’ll throw my principles over the side and try to prevent that,” said Mac Stipanovich, a Republican lawyer based in Florida.
“You could drill a hole in my face with a wood bit and I wouldn’t vote for Donald Trump,” said Mr. Stipanovich, who penned an open letter in May calling on Republicans to stay home or vote for Mrs. Clinton “if conscience permits.”
On Capitol Hill, anti-Trump lawmaker Rep. Richard L. Hanna of New York, who is retiring after his current term expires, has publicly declared his support for Mrs. Clinton, saying in an op-ed that Mr. Trump is “unfit to serve our party and cannot lead this country.”
Rep. E. Scott Rigell of Virginia, who, like Mr. Hanna, is retiring after his term expires, says he’s supporting Mr. Johnson, the former two-term governor of New Mexico who would seemingly be a logical option for dissatisfied Republicans.
But Rep. Charles W. Dent of Pennsylvania said he’s searching for a different choice, and said he might write in former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida says she plans to write in former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a 2016 presidential candidate.
GOP Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine, meanwhile, has said she might write in Mr. Bush or former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who served Mr. Bush’s brother, former President George W. Bush.
And Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, who had at one point embraced Mr. Trump, rescinded his support and now says he plans to write in Colin Powell, the other former secretary of state from the Bush years.
Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 nominee and one of the highest-profile “never Trump” adherents, has said he’s eyeing Mr. Johnson, but it would be easier for him to support fellow former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, who is Mr. Johnson’s running mate.
J. Tucker Martin, who advised a pro-Chris Christie super PAC during the Republican primaries, is now breaking with the New Jersey governor and says he plans to vote Libertarian.
He said he doesn’t feel he’s deserting the party, but rather the GOP went off track in picking Mr. Trump.
“For me, as a Republican, I have no problem at all voting for a ticket that consists of two GOP governors,” Mr. Martin said. “It’s not what I wanted to do this cycle, but, unfortunately, my party didn’t nominate a Republican for president this year. So a lot of us have had to make other plans.”
Liam Donovan, a conservative columnist, said he had been operating under the assumption that he’d vote Libertarian as well, though he said he’s still open to being convinced on Mr. McMullin now that he’s qualified for the Virginia ballot.
“In imaginary land, I’m still more comfortable with the idea of two 2x Govs at the helm,” he said. “But I want the broader effort to succeed, so I’ll definitely give him a fair look.”
He said part of Republicans’ thinking should be the effect on races down the ballot, where House and Senate races will determine who controls Congress, no matter who wins the White House.
“If Republicans are to hold the House and/or Senate, it won’t just be about ticket-splitting in a traditional sense — there needs to be permission signaled at some level to park your vote wherever you feel most comfortable, whether that’s with Trump, the Libertarian line, McMullin or even a write-in,” he said.
Among Mr. Trump’s actual opponents, it’s a mixed bag.
The Republican nominee now has the backing of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
But Mr. Bush and Sen. Lindsey Graham have said they can’t support Mr. Trump — though they’ve also ruled out Mrs. Clinton. They haven’t publicly settled on a candidate.
Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, two other former rivals of Mr. Trump, have not definitively ruled out Mr. Trump, but have refused to say where they will end up.
Mr. Cruz urged delegates at the party’s convention in July to vote their conscience and was booed resoundingly once it became clear there was no endorsement for Mr. Trump.
Steve Lonegan, Mr. Cruz’s New Jersey campaign chairman and one of the leaders in trying to deny Mr. Trump the nomination, said he’s now backing the billionaire businessman.
“I think I made it very clear that we did not believe Trump was the best candidate to defeat Hillary Clinton, but he is now our candidate to defeat Hillary Clinton. So now I’d prefer to use my abilities to try to do whatever I can to help make his campaign the best campaign to defeat Hillary Clinton,” he said.
But he said it’s up to Mr. Trump to win back those Republicans who remain reluctant.
“Trump has not succeeded in galvanizing them and getting them energized to support him, and that’s his responsibility,” Mr. Lonegan said. “It’s his job as the candidate to be a leader. It’s his job to convince John Kasich and Jeb Bush that, you know, let bygones be bygones.
“I actually think the ball’s in his court, not in theirs,” he said.