NEW YORK – How desperate is the Republican Party? This desperate: Political strategists are concocting schemes to preserve their congressional majorities that they know would concede the presidential contest to Hillary Clinton.
The idea is to give endangered Republican senators like Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania a way to avoid being associated with Donald Trump or being disloyal to the party. To do that, Republicans would recruit respected party elders to run as independent presidential candidates in competitive states. Think of former Govs. Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania and Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, and former Sens. John Sununu and Judd Gregg in New Hampshire.
That would provide what the would-be strategists are calling “safe havens” that would relieve Republican candidates of the pressure to back Clinton or defend Trump. Or so the theory goes.
It’s pretty wild. The plan would hand the White House to Clinton, since the stand-ins would only run in one state apiece and have no chance of winning the presidency. It may be tough to persuade Republican stalwarts to carry that banner and Trump supporters won’t quietly let down-ballot Republicans off the hook.
But Trump scares the daylights out of many Republicans. A recent Bloomberg Politics poll showing Clinton ahead of him by 12 percentage points was especially alarming. Three Republican governors — Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Rick Snyder of Michigan and Larry Hogan of Maryland — have said they won’t support Trump, as have several Republican members of Congress. They worry that he is so unpopular that he’ll take down congressional Republicans with him.
But conventional dump-Trump plans have gone nowhere. The New York billionaire dominated the primaries despite the opposition of the party’s leaders and big donors. Attempts to find a conservative alternative to run in the general election fizzled. Current moves to try to change the rules to deny him the nomination at the Cleveland convention next month are likely to fail and could generate a violent response.
So far the “safe haven” idea is rattling around among strategists and party officials who have wielded tactical influence in the past. None of the most prominent officeholders have yet signed on.
If the “safe haven” plan gains momentum, ballot access would not be a problem except in a few states like North Carolina, where the filing deadline already has passed; Illinois, with a ballot deadline of next Monday; and perhaps Nevada and Missouri with July deadlines. The rest of the states with major competitive Senate, and House, races have August deadlines and require a manageable number of signatures.
Republicans currently control the Senate, 54 to 46, but nine of the 10 most competitive seats on the November ballot are held by their members. Losing half of them would mean Democratic control. In the House of Representatives, Republicans would have to lose 30 seats, considered almost impossible before the past few weeks.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.