MIDLOTHIAN, VIRGINIA/WASHINGTON – Sheila Covert is worried about Donald Trump. The loyal Republican voter from Virginia calls the businessman “bombastic” and says there’s “just no substance” in his campaign rhetoric.
But if Trump does become the Republican presidential nominee?
“Well, I’d definitely vote for him,” said the 81-year-old Covert. After a pause, she added, “But I hope and pray it doesn’t come to that.”
Covert is part of a legion of skeptical Republican voters across the United States coming to terms with the prospect that Trump, a candidate whose appeal they simply can’t understand, may become their party’s best chance for retaking the White House.
The real estate mogul has three commanding primary victories in a row, including Tuesday in Nevada, and enters next week’s Super Tuesday elections in a strong position.
Interviews with about two dozen frequent Republican voters in Virginia, one of several states with a primary next week, reveal the complex mix of emotions Trump evokes within his own party.
Among those who don’t plan to vote for Trump in the primary, there’s shock, confusion and anxiousness over his candidacy. But there’s also a grudging acceptance of the billionaire’s political staying power and a feeling that despite his many flaws, he’d be better than another four years with a Democrat in the White House, particularly if that Democrat is Hillary Clinton.
“He says things you cannot imagine a president saying,” said Michael Glunt. But if Trump faces off against Clinton in November, the 42-year-old will cast his ballot for the Republican nominee.
“Hillary Clinton, I don’t trust her,” Glunt said.
Democratic officials are betting that Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric, particularly about women and immigrants, will turn off independents and some Republicans in battleground states like Virginia. Some anxious Republican leaders share that concern, contributing to the rush of lawmakers and other party officials rallying around Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as an alternative.
While some voters joke about moving to Canada if Trump becomes president, Nancy Bradner is looking at that possibility with some seriousness. A supporter of past Republican nominees including Mitt Romney and George W. Bush, she’s now researching Canadian politics, as well as the country’s health care system and housing market.
“This is the first time in my 68 years that I have truly been scared of what is going to happen in this election,” she said.
A recent AP-GfK poll, however, showed far more Republicans than not say they’d vote for Trump in the general election, and 86 percent of Republican voters think he can win in November, giving him a 15 percentage point advantage over anyone else.
Trump inched closer to the U.S. Republican presidential nomination as his odds shot to a record high on global betting websites on Wednesday and he won his first endorsement from a member of Congress.
The outspoken businessman easily won the Nevada caucuses on Tuesday, giving him his third win in four early nominating contests and pressuring Republican rivals to come up with a way to stop a candidate who only last year was not seen as a serious contender for the Nov. 8 presidential election.
The real estate billionaire swept Nevada by a margin of 22 percentage points, winning 45.9 percent of the vote.
It was the high point so far of an unorthodox campaign during which Trump has fought with Pope Francis, called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States and promised to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border to prevent illegal immigration.
Trump’s Nevada win is likely to further frustrate Republican establishment figures who, less than a month ago, were hoping his campaign as a political outsider was stalled after he lost the opening nominating contest in Iowa to Ted Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas.
In his victory speech in Nevada, the former reality TV show host courted his base of blue-collar workers.
“I love the poorly educated,” he said, mentioning several demographic groups among whom he said he was winning.
By Wednesday, that phrase was being widely discussed online, with some finding it funny and others arguing it was a welcome, nonjudgmental embrace of a constituency that other politicians might speak of only as a problem to be fixed.
Trump’s nearest rivals, Cruz and Marco Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida, have frequently attacked each other, clearing a path for Trump to the Republican nomination that includes primary elections in a slew of Southern states on March 1, known as Super Tuesday.
“These guys have to figure out how to turn their fire on Trump,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist in Washington. Absent that, he said: “Which one is going to get out of this field?”
Rubio and Cruz have struggled to match the popularity of Trump, who is more ready than the two senators to deviate from the tenets of the Republican Party’s brand of conservatism, including free trade and supply-side economics.
On Wednesday, Chris Collins, a Republican congressman from Trump’s home state of New York, became the first national lawmaker to endorse Trump, saying in a statement “it’s time to say no to professional politicians and yes to someone who has created jobs and grown a business.”
Speaking earlier on Wednesday, Trump called endorsements a “waste of time” that “mean very little” in an ABC interview.
Betting venues in Britain, Ireland and New Zealand show the online wagering community coalescing around Trump, once considered an interloper, attracting long-shot odds of 200/1.
Odds for Trump becoming the Republican candidate for November have tightened all the way to 1/2 in some cases.
While more than 1,200 delegates are needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination, Trump has built a formidable head start over Rubio, who came in second in Nevada with 23.9 percent, and Cruz with 21.4 percent.
Opinion polls show Trump ahead in most Super Tuesday states, placing further pressure on Cruz and Rubio, who will have what may be their last chance to change course when the Republican candidates meet for a televised debate on Thursday night.
The primary election next Tuesday in Cruz’s home state of Texas is looming as a make-or-break moment for him after Trump’s growing success among the senator’s core base of evangelicals and other conservative supporters.
Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination is building a momentum that may sweep away challenges by Rubio and Cruz, with his crushing win in the Nevada caucuses marking a third straight victory in state contests.
Rubio captured second place with fewer than 2,000 more votes than Cruz as final vote totals were reported Wednesday morning.
Trump, the billionaire New York businessman, now can claim victories in the West, the South and Northeast — a testament to his broad appeal among voters frustrated with the political establishment. His rivals are running out of time to stop him.
On Wednesday, Trump won his first endorsements from sitting members of Congress, with Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York announcing they are backing him for the Republican presidential nomination.
“We’re winning, winning, winning the country,” Trump declared Tuesday. “Soon, the country is going to start winning, winning, winning.”
Listing the upcoming primary states where he’s leading in preference polls, Trump predicted he’ll soon be able to claim the nomination. “It’s going to be an amazing two months,” he told a raucous crowd at a Las Vegas casino. “We might not even need the two months, folks, to be honest.”
A candidate must have 1,237 state delegates to win the Republican nomination at the National Convention this summer. Trump won 14 delegates in Nevada. Rubio won seven, and Ted got six. Overall, Trump has 81 delegates so far, and Cruz and Rubio have 17 apiece.
The race for the nomination in both major political parties has produced candidates who reflect a deepening anger among American voters with the gridlock during much of the Obama administration.
Trump and Cruz in particular have found strong support among those voters, who express concerns over terrorism, immigration and an economy whose recovery from the Great Recession has mostly benefited the country’s most wealthy.
Entrance polls captured the sentiment propelling Trump’s insurgent campaign: Six in 10 caucus goers said they were angry with the way the government is working, and Trump got about half of them.
After winning in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, Trump has momentum heading into March 1, or Super Tuesday, when Republicans hold nominating contests in a dozen states.
But on Wednesday, Cruz won the endorsement of the governor in his home state of Texas, the largest of the Super Tuesday states.
On the Democrat side, impatient voters have rallied around Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, who has put up a strong challenge to front-runner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton was looking for a commanding victory over Sanders in Saturday’s South Carolina primary to give her a boost heading into Super Tuesday. Polls show the former first lady with a huge advantage among African-Americans, which bodes well for her prospects in the Southern states that vote on Super Tuesday.
Nevada was a critical test for Rubio and Cruz, who are battling to emerge as the clear alternative to Trump. Lagging far behind in the Nevada vote were Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Rubio, already campaigning in Michigan as Nevada results rolled in, was projecting confidence that he can consolidate the non-Trump voters, saying, “we have incredible room to grow.”
Rubio and Cruz have been attacking each other viciously in recent days, an indication they know Trump can be stopped only if one of them is eliminated.