Politics & Policy

The Three Paths Forward for #NeverTrump

(Sean Rayford/Getty)

For Donald Trump’s most ardent Republican foes, the road ahead divides into three paths. The most important choice before them — the one that more than any other will determine what happens next for #NeverTrump — is whether to back an independent conservative candidate. And that choice must be made almost immediately.

Path One: Full Speed Ahead on an Independent Conservative Bid.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing anti-Trump forces is a time crunch. They must decide whether to back an independent candidate in the coming month, and if such a candidate emerges, it will take a Herculean effort to get him onto enough state ballots.

Texas has the earliest deadline of any state for independent candidates hoping to appear on the presidential ballot: May 9. Candidates must submit the signatures of 79,939 registered voters who did not vote in either major party’s presidential primary. The application to appear on the state ballot also must include candidate’s vice-presidential running mate and signed statements of consent from 38 presidential-elector candidates.

North Carolina requires 89,366 signatures by June 9. Illinois requires 25,000 signatures by June 27. New Mexico and Indiana have a deadline of June 30. The other states’ cutoffs are in July, August, and September. Apart from the signature thresholds, the requirements to appear as a choice in November vary widely: Some states, for example, have a geographic distribution requirement for petitions, requiring a certain number of signatures in each congressional district. Getting on the ballot in enough states to reach 270 electoral votes would be difficult for a candidate starting today — but it might become impossible if that candidate failed to meet Texas’s deadline.

And it’s still unclear as of now whether any such candidate could emerge to unite conservative Trump opponents. One group of Republican donors is strongly encouraging former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but she appears uninterested. Speaking at a fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Martin County, Florida in mid-March, Rice said, “It has to be in your DNA to run for president.” John Noonan, a former national security advisor to Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, is touting retired Marine General James Mattis, but Mattis has dismissed the idea as “idle talk.”

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Path Two: A Purely Symbolic Independent Conservative Bid.

#NeverTrump adherents may prefer defeating Trump and Hillary Clinton, but that could prove impossible, in which case they’d have to decide whether to give frustrated Republicans a symbolic choice beyond Trump and the likely Democratic nominee. In the eyes of many conservatives, a Trump-Clinton race offers the choice between an arrogant, dishonest, corrupt thug with a long record of liberalism . . . and President Obama’s former Secretary of State. Many principled conservatives won’t be able to vote for either of them.

The movement’s most plausible path forward may also be its best one in the long run.

There is already discussion of the need to bring out anti-Trump conservative voters to save down-ticket Republicans, particularly in blue-to-purple states with competitive Senate contests — Mark Kirk in Illinois, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, the open-seat races in Florida and Nevada. Some people who might otherwise stay home could come out to vote if they feel there’s some option they can feel proud to support at the top of the ticket.

It won’t necessarily require much to create such an option; in some states, all it would take is a write-in bid. But the question remains: Who would be willing and able to step up and heed #NeverTrump’s call?

Path Three: No Independent Bid.

For those who see the Trump candidacy as an effort to transform the Republican party — from a fundamentally conservative, free-market, traditionalist, Reaganesque coalition to one that’s fundamentally populist, protectionist, isolationist, and unconcerned with traditional values — the biggest priority is vanquishing him so thoroughly that his ideas disappear from the political scene forever. At this point, Trump appears headed for a massive defeat in the popular vote and a 130- to 150-vote defeat in the Electoral College. His nomination would endanger GOP control of the Senate and perhaps even the party’s dominant majority in the House.

No matter how badly Trump is defeated, his diehard fans will always find a long list of excuses — beginning with #NeverTrump Republicans’ refusal to unite behind the nominee. An independent conservative bid would give Trumpkins a ready-made excuse should their man lose big in November.

But if Clinton crushes Trump in a clear, one-on-one matchup, it might force the Republican party as a whole — including Trump supporters — to concede that the philosophy and style that captured millions of primary voters was a political non-starter for the larger electorate.

#related#In the eyes of the #NeverTrump movement, nominating a 69-year-old billionaire who mocks the appearance of his critics, retweets white supremacists, and promises the moon without providing any details on how he’d deliver it was the absolute worst way to respond to the defeat of 2012. The choice of Trump is a rejection of the current political reality in favor of border walls, celebrity glitz, bombast, and birtherism.

If after November a large enough majority of the Republican Party must conclude that nominating Trump was a catastrophic error in political judgment, never to be repeated or suggested again, then the #NeverTrump movement will have lost the battle but won the war. The movement’s most plausible path forward may also be its best one in the long run.

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.

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