Why the Republican establishment is freaking out

After four months of Donald Trump leading Republican primary polls, 20 Republican leaders gathered over dinner last week to talk about an astonishing option for their national convention. According to The Washington Post, “several longtime Republican power brokers argued that if the controversial billionaire storms through the primaries, the party’s establishment must lay the groundwork for a floor fight in which the GOP’s mainstream wing could coalesce around an alternative.”

Donald Trump speaks Monday during a rally in Las Vegas. Mike Blake | Reuters

Donald Trump speaks Monday during a rally in Las Vegas. Mike Blake | Reuters

Any such attempt to deny Trump the nomination would split the party. Even the fact that this meeting, which included the party chair and Senate leader, was held, tells you how troubled the GOP establishment is.

As Republican leaders and strategists have conniptions about Trump, they may be thinking of California and what happened to that state’s politics. That history makes it clear that Trump is not just a short-term problem.

Today anyone putting together an electoral college map quickly puts California in the Democratic column. That matters, since our biggest state has 55 electoral votes, 20 percent of the total needed to win the presidency.

But California didn’t used to be blue. California elected lots of Republicans to the U.S. Senate and to the governorship, including two who held the presidency not so long ago — Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

After California voted for Truman in 1948, it only went Democratic one time before supporting Bill Clinton in 1992. The exception was the massive landslide of 1964, when the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater won just six states. Now Democrats have won six presidential races and nine U.S. Senate races in a row.

The reason why California decisively turned can be summarized with one man’s name: Pete Wilson. This Republican governor shifted the Golden State decisively after he supported a 1994 referendum that would have denied services to illegal immigrants, in a campaign that featured some rather nasty language and characterizations of those immigrants. After that, the Hispanic population doubled and became a solid Democratic voting bloc.

California presents a path contemporary GOP leaders would like to avoid taking. After Obama won his second electoral college victory in 2012, the Republican establishment realized the party had to stop turning off Hispanics, the nation’s fastest growing population segment. Romney was only able to attract 27 percent of Hispanics, a big drop from George W. Bush’s 44 percent share in 2004. But then along came Donald Trump, with his virulent rhetoric against Mexicans last summer.

Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the United States, which was decried by numerous Republican leaders (who simultaneously said they would support their party’s nominee), is, not surprisingly, a huge turnoff to Muslim Americans, a large share of whom live in the swing states of Ohio, Florida and Virginia. What a big shift from 2000, when Bush did well with Muslims.

Islamophobic sentiments don’t hurt Trump’s chances of winning the nomination because, although 60 percent of all Americans oppose his proposed ban on Muslims, 59 percent of Republican primary voters support it. Since he made the proposal, he’s surged in primary polls. (No wonder Maine GOP leaders have said less and less about the Islamophobic views discovered among state legislators.)

Reince Priebus, who never pushed back against Trump’s birtherism, likely realized his party needed these angry, anxious citizens to volunteer and to vote.

A small portion of Trump’s supporters are proudly and overtly racist. As Politico reported, “Stormfront, the most prominent American white supremacist website, is upgrading its servers in part to cope with a Trump traffic spike.”

Many of Trump’s voters think Obama is a Kenyan Muslim, cheered when South Carolina Republican congressman Joe Wilson shouted “You lie” at the the president, believed the lie that Obamacare includes death panels, and think climate change findings are a big conspiracy.

No wonder why Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is in second place in national polls. The other day, countering the scientific community and most people on earth, Cruz said, “Climate change is the perfect pseudoscientific theory for a big government politician who wants more power.”

Meanwhile, Republican leaders are worried about how Trump’s candidacy and the nomination fight undermines their party’s reputation.

Trump’s right-wing populism could draw out citizens who haven’t voted much, so a Trump victory for president is not completely inconceivable.

But in an increasingly diverse America, the GOP establishment is right to worry that as California goes, so goes the nation.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.