The presentation is an 11th-hour rebuttal to the fatalism permeating the Republican establishment: Slide by slide, state by state, it calculates how Donald Trump could be denied the nomination.
Marco Rubio wins Florida. John Kasich wins Ohio. Ted Cruz notches victories in the Midwest and Mountain West. And the results in California and other states are jumbled enough to leave Trump three dozen delegates short of the 1,237 required – forcing a contested convention in Cleveland in July.
The slide show, shared with The Washington Post by two operatives advising one of a handful of anti-Trump super PACs, encapsulates the newly emboldened view of many GOP leaders and donors. They see a clearer path to stopping Trump following his two losses and two narrower-than-expected wins on Saturday.
In private conversations in recent days at a Republican Governors Association retreat here in Park City and at a gathering of conservative policy minds and financiers in Sea Island, Ga., there was an emerging consensus that Trump is vulnerable and that a continued blitz of attacks could puncture the billionaire mogul’s support and leave him limping onto the convention floor.
But the slow-bleed strategy is risky and hinges on Trump losing Florida, Illinois and Ohio on March 15; wins in all three would set him on track to amass the majority of delegates. Even as some party figures see glimmers of hope that Trump could be overtaken, others believe any stop-Trump efforts could prove futile.
This moment of confusion for the Republican Party is made more uncertain by the absence of a clear alternative to Trump. Cruz, Rubio and Kasich each are collecting delegates and vowing to fight through the spring. Among GOP elites, the only agreed-upon mission is to minimize Trump’s share of the delegates to enable an opponent to mount a credible convention challenge.
“It’s one thing if (Trump) goes to the convention and he’s got 48 percent, 49 percent of the delegates,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Rubio supporter, said in an interview here. “Then it’s a hard thing to see if there’s a convention floor battle. But if he goes to the convention and he’s got 35 or 40 percent, that’s a whole different thing.”
Other governors voiced exasperation not only at the prospect of a Trump nomination, but at the political culture that gave rise to his candidacy.
“We’ve got this Enquirer magazine mentality,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said in an interview. “We are subject to this reality TV voyeurism that is taking place. Fast-food headlines, no substance, all flash. The Twitter atmosphere out there, snarky comments on email, Snapchat. Everything is superficial.. . .We’ve got to wake up, America.”
Similar conversations were underway in Sea Island, where the American Enterprise Institute think tank held a policy forum.
“Despite the fact that the story right now is panic in the streets, throw the baby out the window and hope the firefighter catchers her. . .hope springs eternal,” said Arthur C. Brooks, the AEI president. “Nothing is inevitable.”
Trump could get a bounce on Tuesday with the Michigan and Mississippi primaries, which he is expected to win though there are signs of tightening. But next Tuesday is seen as the more decisive moment, with winner-take-all Florida as ground zero – and where polls show Trump’s lead slipping.
The “Stop Trump” movement’s leading super PAC, Our Principles PAC, is adopting what its operatives call a “surround sound” strategy in Florida: More than $3 million in television advertisements, plus direct mail pieces, digital ads, phone banking and emails – all designed to sow doubts about Trump’s character, convictions and fitness for office.
“There is now a silver bullet,” said Brian Baker, a strategist involved with planning the super PAC’s activities. “It’s the cumulative effect of all of these messages.”
Baker also advises the political work of the billionaire Ricketts family, whose matriarch, Marlene, gave $3 million in seed money to Our Principles PAC. Baker and Michael Meyers, president of TargetPoint Consulting, developed the delegate count slide show that was shared with The Post.
Our Principles PAC is also eyeing an aggressive push into Ohio, where Kasich is governor, and has prepared a possible television ad casting Trump as an outsourcer because his branded clothing is made in China and Bangladesh, the group’s advisers said.
Katie Packer, the super PAC’s president, said, “His path to 1,237 goes through Florida, Ohio and Illinois. If he can’t win at least two of those places, it’s going to be very, very tough for him to get to 1,237.”
The super PAC is attracting new donors, including Randy Kendrick, wife of the Arizona Diamondbacks owner, who said she was moved to act by Trump’s provocative rhetoric. “Dictators arose because good people did not stand up and say, ‘It’s wrong to scapegoat minorities,'” Kendrick said.
Some party establishment figures are assisting the super PAC, including former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, who confirmed that he has been calling friends urging them to make donations.
A separate group, American Future Fund, also is trying to take Trump down on the Florida airwaves with $2.75 million in a series of ads there. Some spots feature people who claim they were duped by Trump University while others star veterans speaking out against him or characterize some of Trump’s business associates as shady.
A third group, Club for Growth, is advertising against Trump in Florida and Illinois and is assessing a possible barrage in Ohio as well. David McIntosh, the Club for Growth’s president, said donors recently were hesitant to fund anti-Trump ads, but have come around the past couple of weeks.
“After South Carolina, I got questions – ‘Can he be stopped? You’re running a fool’s errand,'” McIntosh said. “My answer was, ‘It worked (in Iowa), and even more importantly, it has to be done. We can’t just cede this ground.”
Trump retaliated Monday with a tough ad depicting Rubio as a fraud and ticking through the greatest hits in the senator’s opposition research file. The narrator calls Rubio, “another corrupt, all-talk, no-action politician.”
For Cruz and his allies, the intensity of the anti-Trump ad campaign is welcome relief. Their main target, at least in Florida, is Rubio, hoping that a home-state loss would force him to drop out.
“There is so much anti-Trump messaging out there, it’s flooded,” said Kellyanne Conway, president of Keep the Promise I, a pro-Cruz super PAC. “What could we say that isn’t out there?”
Some Republican donors are not on board with trashing Trump, however.
“There’s a group that thinks, look, Trump is likely to be inevitable here and let’s not tarnish him,” said Fred Malek, the RGA’s finance chairman.
Strategist Liz Mair said she has found it difficult to convince many donors to pony up to Make America Awesome, her anti-Trump super PAC.
“Republican donors are acting like the parents of teenage alcoholics,” Mair said. “They see all the signs of problems, but they don’t really want to admit and address the problem because that would entail them acknowledging that they didn’t do the right things along the way.”
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, who met with many donors in Park City over the weekend, said he heard “a lot of concern” about the GOP’s fracturing.
“There’s people that always say, ‘You’ve got to go negative,’ and I really struggle with that,” Otter said in an interview. “To, in a gentlemanly way or a lady-like way, point out the other person’s record is one thing. But to get into some kind of a name-calling deal I don’t think is very beneficial.”
But Haslam, the Tennessee governor, reiterated the urgency of slowing Trump now before he accumulates too many delegates. Otherwise, party elites risk the appearance of trying to steal the nomination from him at the convention.
“That is probably the most dangerous situation for the Republican Party,” Haslam said. “If he gets there with not a majority but close to a majority of the [delegates] and doesn’t get the nomination, that’ll be very difficult. He could say, ‘I’m going to ask all of my folks to sit this one out to show them how big we are.’ Who knows?”
(C) 2016, The Washington Post · Philip Rucker, Robert Costa