It was mid-April when as many as 1,000 alumni of the most recent Republican administration descended on Dallas for a staff reunion to reminisce about sunnier times. Former President George W. Bush autographed cowboy hats, Vice President Dick Cheney snapped selfies and First Lady Laura Bush chatted up the crowd. The memories were happy; the fajitas were plentiful.
When it came to talk of 2016, though, the mood was grim. The Republican primary had just narrowed to essentially two choices, each anathema to these card-carrying members of the GOP establishment: Ted Cruz and, even more egregiously, Donald Trump.
But few were as dark about the Republican Party’s future as former President Bush himself. In a more intimate moment during the reunion, surrounded by a smaller clutch of former aides and advisers, Bush weighed in with an assessment so foreboding that some who relayed it could not discern if it was gallows humor or blunt realpolitik.
“I’m worried,” Bush told them, “that I will be the last Republican president.”
Donald Trump, who will officially become the Republican nominee on Tuesday, has done little to inspire renewed confidence since.
But it is the rise of Trump’s divisive style and embrace of white resentment politics—anchored by proposals for a wall to keep Mexicans out, an immigration ban preventing Muslims from coming in and talk of cheating by China and ripping up trade deals—that has many of the Republican Party’s elders, privately and publicly, predicting defeat this fall at the hands of a diversifying electorate and fretting about long-term fallout.
In interviews with more than 40 of the Republican Party’s leading strategists, lawmakers, fundraisers and donors, a common thread has emerged heading into the general election: Win or lose in November (and more expect to lose than not), they fear that Trump’s overheated and racialized rhetoric could irreparably poison the GOP brand among the fastest-growing demographic groups in America.
And so, to an almost unprecedented extent, as the 50,000 Republican activists, officials and media pour into Cleveland this week, there is something of a convention within the convention. Many of these GOP titans—the intellectual and financial pillars of the party and its possible future elected leaders—are plotting a parallel course.
In delegation breakfasts, private hotel suites and steakhouses across Cleveland—and farther afield for those, like Jeb Bush and his family, who are skipping the festivities—they are laying the foundations for the next political battles they believe can actually be won: first, to preserve the GOP majorities in the House and Senate this fall, then to save the Republican Party itself.
From the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch to an increasingly influential GOP financier Paul Singer, from those who fell short in 2016—Ted Cruz and Scott Walker—to those who could be fresh faces in 2020—Tom Cotton, Ben Sasse, Nikki Haley—from House Speaker Paul Ryan to the not-so-subterranean contest for the chairmanship of the RepublicanNational Committee, the maneuvering is underway to pick up the shards of the shattered GOP.
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