Absolute and simple, the message blasted across social media this year, a shield worn by Republicans horrified by Donald Trump. Anyone not on board was a sellout.
On Wednesday, the movement was in shambles. John Kasich followed Ted Cruz in getting out of the way of the #TrumpTrain. Some vowed to continue to oppose the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, but the failure was, in retrospect, evident from the start.
The effort began too late, lacked organization, misread voters’ appetite for change and Trump’s unscripted style and overestimated the ability of social media and TV ads to change minds.
“It was a petulant fit of protest,” said John Feehery, a Republican operative in Washington. “All they were saying was ‘We don’t like Trump,’ but they weren’t telling anybody who they liked. I’ve never seen a more negative campaign.
“I don’t think the voters give a s--- about Twitter and they really don’t care about commercials that basically line the pockets of strategists,” Feehery said.
“We were too late with too little,” said Mac Stipanovich, a well-known Florida Republican who was not part of the formal effort but repeatedly warned about Trump. He has no plans to relent and will either sit out the election, or if the race is close, vote for Hillary Clinton.
“Everybody underestimated Trump and his appeal,” Stipanovich said. “I don’t think anybody had a real sense of how widespread was this antipathy for the status quo.”
Trump, Stipanovich added, “appeals to the fears and prejudices of a significant element of the electorate, which is even a more significant element of the Republican primary vote. Trying to reason with those people about the issues is like trying to reason with a mob.”
Quickly dismissed as a joke when he announced his campaign in June 2015 — a day after Jeb Bush — Trump defied expectations and Washington insider predictions that he would fade. Remember Trump saying John McCain is “not a war hero?” That was in July.
The formal campaign to deny Trump the nomination did not take off until January when a former Mitt Romney strategist formed Our Principles, a super PAC fueled by a $3 million contribution from Marlene Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs.
Other groups sprang up, but coordination was lacking and other wealthy donors, notably the Koch brothers, did not rush to fill the coffers. Regardless, the airwaves were already saturated with political ads.
Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee, tried to kickstart things with a blistering anti-Trump speech in early March, but he declined to name a preferred candidate and was the epitome of the Republican establishment many Trump supporters wanted nothing to do with.
Republican grievances with Trump are real. He has supported abortion rights and gun restrictions in the past and contributed to Clinton and other Democrats. He has bucked the GOP’s general support for trade agreements and criticized the Iraq war.
But to some, the #NeverTrump movement came across like a mandate from the elites — with us or against us.
“It was too extreme,” said Patrick Davis, Trump’s state director in Colorado.
“When you have an organized conspiracy, you motivate people,” said Bill Paterson, GOP chairman in St. Lucie County and a Trump supporter. “They just got angrier. They dug in.”
“He’s pure enough for me,” Paterson said. “He loves this country. I think he wants to turn it around.”
Trump was helped, too, by a reluctance by his rivals to engage. Marco Rubio kept a distance until it was too late. Cruz played nice in the hopes of attracting Trump’s followers, making the vicious war between the two in recent weeks even more startling.
“At the start, nobody had the conservative bonafides to match Cruz,” Florida Republican and CNN commentator Ana Navarro wrote on Twitter on Tuesday night. “Could have called Trump a phony conservative then. Instead, he sucked up. I prefer Cruz to Trump, though makes my teeth hurt. BUT, Cruz dug his own grave. Didn’t unmask Trump when had chance.”
Bush forcefully took on Trump but paid a price as the lone target of the New York businessman’s playground taunts. The former Florida governor endorsed Cruz but many other prominent Republicans sat on the sidelines.
Briefly it seemed like #NeverTrump could work.
Trump was defeated by Cruz in the April 5 Wisconsin primary. Radio talk show hosts pummeled Trump and Gov. Scott Walker, a one-time candidate, threw his clout behind Cruz.
But Cruz’s unwavering brand of conservatism did not sell in northern states such as New York and Pennsylvania that put Trump on his inevitable course. Voters saw a winner and a legitimate outsider.
“It’s not being conservative enough or liberal enough. People think Trump can get stuff done,” Feehery said. “They feel like ideologues on both sides have screwed up this country and if there’s one thing, Trump is not an ideologue.”
Our Principles vowed Tuesday night to “continue to give voice to the belief of so many Republicans that Trump is not a conservative, does not represent the values of the Republican Party, cannot beat Hillary Clinton, and is simply unfit to be president of the United States. We will continue to educate voters about Trump until he, or another candidate, wins the support of a majority of delegates to the convention.”
The group spent at least $17 million.
#NeverTrump Republicans now face the choice of rallying around a common enemy or doing the unthinkable and sitting out the election or voting for a Democrat.
“I’m still critical of him, but I think he’s better than Hillary Clinton,” Bobby Jindal, the former Louisiana governor and 2016 contender, said Tuesday night on Fox News. He said with Trump there was hope of dismantling Obamacare and installing a conservative on the Supreme Court.
“It’s binary now,” Jindal said. “Trump or Clinton.”
Contact Alex Leary at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @learyreports.