Grin and bear it? GOP establishment could live with Donald Trump

Where does Donald Trump stand?

Donald Trump entered the 2016 presidential race on June 16, 2015. Find out where he stands on four of the biggest issues this election: immigration, ISIS, job growth and gay marriage. (Daniel Desrochers/McClatchy DC)
Up Next
Donald Trump entered the 2016 presidential race on June 16, 2015. Find out where he stands on four of the biggest issues this election: immigration, ISIS, job growth and gay marriage. (Daniel Desrochers/McClatchy DC)

Donald Trump may be a maverick and even an embarrassment to Republican establishment types. But if he becomes the party’s presidential nominee, they’re all for him.

Trump’s rise had troubled insiders, the political pros who organize and fund campaigns, for a host of reasons. He didn’t pay his dues by doing the unglamorous work most party regulars endure. He’s winning without the GOP’s intricate network of fundraisers and grassroots operatives. And his insults of Mexicans and view that Muslims not be allowed to enter this country create an image of intolerance the GOP has been trying to shed for years.

Yet the regulars are ready to do business with Trump if they must.

“Reality,” explained Curly Haugland, North Dakota national committeeman. “You get to a tipping point where presumptiveness begins to kick in.”

Trump remains atop national polls, and the insiders have come to appreciate his political skills. Trump’s shown a knack for reaching people. He’s shown he can change his views. Most alluring to politicians, he has potential to get voters to the polls who may not ordinarily show up, a valuable boost to Republicans up and down the ticket.

“If you’re a Trump voter, you’re probably a nontraditional voter. You want those Republicans,” said Saul Anuzis, former Michigan Republican chairman who’s backing Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

Trump seems amused.

“I don’t know if this is good. This could be the curse, okay?” he said on MSNBC Friday. “But establishment people are now calling us and saying, ‘How do we get involved with the campaign?’ People who were saying terrible things like three months ago ... It’s like how quickly we forget.”

Trump’s still rarely the establishment’s first or even second or third choice. His comments bother stalwarts such as Henry Barbour, the Mississippi Republican national committeeman who helped author a 2013 party report urging more tolerance and inclusion. But if Trump wins the nomination, Barbour said, “I’ll be for him all day long.”

Barbour and other party officials are politicians with long histories of listening to and acceding to the wishes of their constituencies. They see Trump drawing enthusiastic audiences that number in the tens of thousands. They saw the Jan. 9-13 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showing nearly two-thirds of Republicans could accept Trump as the nominee.

What they don’t see so far is any of the more center-right candidates with close ties to establishment figures breaking out as a strong alternative to Trump and Cruz.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has been winning key endorsements from big party names, but remains well behind in third place in most polls. John Kasich, the governor of Ohio and Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, have gained in New Hampshire, which will hold the nation’s first primary Feb. 9, but have shown little strength elsewhere. Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, has floundered everywhere.

Earlier this week, about 100 of those center-right voters gathered at a Charleston restaurant to meet and greet Kasich. They talked about what they’d do if he were no longer running when Republicans vote in South Carolina next month.

“You cull the list from the bottom,” said David Shimp, a retired Naval officer from Mt. Pleasant. He wasn’t sold on Trump, but he sure didn’t want Cruz. .

“I just don’t feel comfortable with Cruz,” he explained.

The two or so hours of the political debate you see on TV are just a fraction of what’s become an all-day event for the candidates and the journalists. McClatchy Washington bureau Political Editor Steve “Buzz” Thomma goes behind the scenes of a po

Kevin Rooney, a retired marketing vice president, found Trump “a little rough around the edges, but the reality is he’s a proven leader.” Mike Macke, a Charleston metallurgist, had a similar view: “He probably knows the difference between what’s said and what gets done.”

Insiders are well aware of Trump’s executive and political history, which suggests they can do business with him.

Bill and Hillary Clinton, then a U.S. senator from New York, attended his 2005 wedding. Earlier this week, Clinton said Trump was “supportive of Democrats . . . and a lot of causes I care about.” While that would seem a big liability to conservative voters, Republican regulars see that as evidence that he’s not intractable.

The biggest motivator for rallying around Trump: Republicans desperately want to win back the White House, and they have an almost visceral dislike of Clinton, the national Democratic front-runner.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus laid out the stakes this week at the party’s winter meeting.

“If we don’t win, what happens to our party?” he asked. “Could we function as a national party in the same way?”

The big unifier is Hillary Clinton, and if Trump is the one to beat her, so be it..

“The number one priority would be beating Hillary Clinton,” said Randy Evans, GOP national committeeman from Georgia. 2016 is not one of those years where the party is divided so badly on philosophy that it can’t heal under a common purpose, he said.

“Whoever the nominee is, we’ll all in,” said Peter Feaman, Florida national committeeman. “There’s no perfect candidate.”

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid