The long battle for the Republican presidential nomination has now ended, settling on a new leader of the Republican Party: Donald Trump.
Republicans nationwide reacted with a mix of disbelief, anger and grudging acceptance Wednesday, revealing a party that may have a new leader but whose future will be unclear until after the general election this November.
The first signs the party would not immediately unite behind Trump as the nominee emerged Tuesday night, when Texas Senator Ted Cruz dropped out of the race following a resounding loss to Trump in the Indiana primary.
A number of conservative bloggers and party operatives, including former John McCain aide Mark Salter – many of whom had been a part of the unsuccessful Never Trump movement – took to social media to openly declare they would not support Trump, and some even took the unprecedented step of pledging to vote for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton using the hashtag #ImWithHer.
“The idea of mainstream or even fairly conservative Republicans coming out to support a Clinton for the presidency is kind of mind-blowing,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
Clinton - a divisive political figure and a lightning rod for conservative criticism over the past two decades – is a highly unlikely figure to attract any kind of Republican support.
“It really puts into perspective how desperate and how angry and how disgusted many elements of the Republican Party are with Trump,” Hudak said.
With the concession of Cruz and the announcement Wednesday that Ohio Governor John Kasich is suspending his campaign, Trump will become the first party leader in more than six decades not to have held political office.
“We want to bring unity to the Republican Party,” Trump said in his victory speech Tuesday. “We have to bring unity. It's so much easier if we have it.” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus followed by tweeting a message of support intended to solidify a party splintered by the Trump win.
High stakes in House and Senate
The choice between Trump and Clinton could drive away many long-time conservative voters as well as Independents, said Hudak.
“What happens when Republicans in those states start voting Democrat? It tells you that maybe Clinton won’t win those states but Republicans are going to have to spend a lot of money in those states and that’s a fast way to win election,” he said.
Now the choice for establishment Republicans and party elders may come down to a matter of tone and political finesse. Hudak said many will hold their nose and vote for Trump to sustain party unity while refraining from the kind of outright campaigning that would show support for Trump’s ideas and his vision for the presidency.
That decision could be a final effort to salvage the party.
“It’s an attempt to bring the party to some level of unity so that people will turn out and vote,” said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “The last line of defense for Republicans is the House and Senate; they want as few divisions that demoralize people as they possibly can get.”
Out of the 34 Senate seats up for re-election this November, anywhere from seven to 10 are Republican seats in jeopardy. Ornstein said the decision to support Trump may ultimately come down to saving those seats.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have dealt with the reality of Trump in their own ways – McConnell has pushed small bills through the Senate while Ryan hopes to push a bold agenda focused on national security, the economy, poverty and health care through the House. That cannot happen within a fractured Republican party.
“The more you distance yourself from your party’s nominee, the more you get a backlash from those populists who have been ardently for Trump saying see, the establishment is defying and betraying us again,” Ornstein said. “The more you embrace Trump, the more you turn traditional conservatives and Independents away from you.”
Future of the party?
Cruz positioned himself as the potential leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party during his concession speech Tuesday night. Many analysts saw parallels between his speech and Ronald Reagan’s concession to Gerald Ford in 1976. Reagan ultimately came back in 1980 to win the Republican nomination and the presidency, ushering in a new era of conservatism in American politics. At age 45, Cruz is young enough to look toward a presidential run in 2020 but the party may be moving beyond his vision.
“The reality is Ronald Reagan was successful in 1976 because he was the future of the Republican Party. Ted Cruz is not the future of this party,” said Hudak.
In 2012, Republicans famously performed an “autopsy” after the loss of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, calling for the party to adapt its perspective and improve outreach to women and minorities. Instead, the party moved in a completely different direction that ultimately ended with Trump as the nominee.
After the general election, a new reckoning will occur. If Trump wins, his anti-establishment, anti-immigration wing of the party will clearly hold sway. If he loses, the conservative wing of the party represented by Cruz and the older establishment wing will be left to sort out what remains of a party led by a completely unexpected nominee.
“You’re going to see an enormous battle not just for the control of the party apparatus,” said Ornstein, “but for the soul of the Republican Party and it’s not going to be resolved quickly or easily.”