One week and one day.
That’s how long the old guard of the Republican Party believes it has to take down Donald Trump in what’s become a mad scramble to blunt the billionaire’s momentum before delegate-rich, winner-take-all contests crown him the presumptive GOP nominee.
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Nearly $10 million in spending by anti-Trump forces and the pro-Marco Rubio super PAC has poured into the race since Super Tuesday, with much of the focus on Florida and its crucial haul of 99 delegates.
The goal, according to people familiar with the effort, has been to assemble as much as $25 million to spend against the New York businessman before March 15. Some, however, doubt the figure will ultimately reach that high. And even Trump opponents are questioning if the donor world has moved from hand-wringing to check-writing in time.
“It’s too little, too late,” said Fred Malek, the finance chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
What’s more, Ted Cruz’s emergence as the best-placed alternative has complicated the anti-Trump movement’s push to find financiers. Many top Republicans, especially those in Washington, see Cruz as just as objectionable as Trump.
“It is why it has been so difficult to get an anti-Trump campaign together,” confided one top Republican strategist, who opposes both men. “If the ultimate beneficiary of anti-Trump efforts is Ted Cruz, the effort itself is probably not worthwhile.”
Over the weekend, Cruz solidified his standing as Trump’s closest rival, winning two more contests and lifting his total state count to six, compared to Rubio’s only wins in Minnesota and Puerto Rico. Cruz impressively doubled Trump’s showing in the Kansas caucuses, despite the businessman’s last-minute stop in Wichita, and won among election-day primary voters in Louisiana, demonstrating late momentum following Thursday’s ugly debate. Rubio’s election-day support in Louisiana cratered into the single digits.
The main anti-Trump vehicle is Our Principles PAC, founded by former top Romney strategist Katie Packer. It received its first $3 million in seed money from Marlene Ricketts, the wife of the owner of the Chicago Cubs, but its circle of major donors has since expanded to include Paul Singer, Richard Uihlein and Meg Whitman. Last week, the three participated on a conference call that focused on the super PAC’s efforts.
Behind the scenes but in the middle of the effort is Jon Lerner, a longtime Republican pollster and strategist who is helping to coordinate the anti-Trump offensive, according to two sources familiar with the discussions. Lerner is a top strategist for the Club for Growth, which first began airing anti-Trump ads last fall in Iowa, and the pro-Rubio Conservative Solutions PAC. He also advises a number of the party’s top donors and is a top strategist for South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has endorsed Rubio.
Reached Friday afternoon, Lerner declined to comment.
Throughout the summer and fall, Club for Growth experimented with modest TV ad buys against Trump in early primary states. But last month, during a meeting of the group’s top donors, discussions intensified. There was frustration, said one person present at the gathering, that more groups had not done more to take on Trump. There was also talk about what another anti-Trump offensive would look like, and what states made most sense to focus on.
In addition to its $1.5 million Florida offensive, the Club for Growth has launched a roughly $2 million TV blitz against Trump in Illinois, another delegate rich state that votes on March 15.
The Cruz factor is one of the reasons the purse strings of the anti-Trump push appear to have loosened most in Florida, where a Trump loss would almost certainly amount to a Rubio win.
For instance, one of the groups funding the anti-Trump push, the nonprofit American Future Fund, which is running $1.75 million in ads in Florida and $450,000 in Illinois is run by Nick Ryan, the same operative who ran blistering anti-Cruz ads on behalf of Mike Huckabee’s super PAC in Iowa.
A second Ryan-run group, American Future Fund Political Action, is expected to announce buying additional ads as early as Monday, likely in those same states.
Rubio argued over the weekend that the “map only gets better for us,” but his campaign is in need of political oxygen after he missed the threshold for delegates in Maine and Louisiana. He’s won only two contests and in the next round of states, Rubio has only promised to win Florida.
Trump’s team, meanwhile, has also circled March 15 as mission critical.
“It’s the last stand,” said Barry Bennett, who served as Ben Carson’s campaign manager and is now an unpaid adviser to Trump. “We’re going to have a nominee if Donald Trump wins Ohio and Florida on the 15th.”
Others agree. “If Trump wins Florida, the nomination is over,” said Curt Anderson, a senior Republican strategist who served as Bobby Jindal’s campaign manager.
The late push to deny Trump the nomination has united some typically disparate elements of the Republican apparatus — the party’s top financiers, who are fretting over the future of the party’s brand, along with movement and conservative activists, who worry about Trump’s ideology-less brand of Republicanism.
“Politics makes for strange bedfellows,” said Jenny Beth Martin, head of Tea Party Patriots, a group whose political arm opposes Trump and supports Cruz. “That’s a saying for a reason.” At the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, her group’s booth was promoting the ads produced by Our Principles PAC.
But the self-described “#NeverTrump” movement remains an ad hoc and loosely organized grouping that one Republican strategist involved in the efforts described as a “Halloween coalition.”
“The establishment and the Right — normally at each other’s throats — have laid down their swords to prevent Donald Trump from hijacking the conservative movement and the Republican party in one fell swoop,” said the strategist. “I do think we have enough time. There’s a lot of paddles in the water but it’s an extremely intense current and it’s upstream.”