When it comes to Donald Trump, Republicans in Congress are past denial and anger. Some haven’t quite given up on bargaining, still dreaming of a contested convention.
But after Trump’s dominance in Tuesday’s five-state presidential primaries, most are moving through depression toward acceptance.
Now, those finding themselves at the fifth stage of grief are starting to offer advice for the candidate, in hopes of containing a feared voter backlash against the volatile real estate mogul.
“It looks to me like he’s going to win, and if he does I’m going to do everything in my power to help him,” said Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who earlier backed Jeb Bush and then Marco Rubio.
“I think he would be great, if he gets serious about being president,” Hatch added. “And I think he will when he gets hit with the reality that this is the hardest job in the world.”
A lot of those coming to grips with Trump want him to take steps to moderate his flamboyance and combativeness. One way to do that is picking a more traditional running mate who can reassure voters that a Trump administration would be serious and inclusive.
Representative Cynthia Lummis, a Wyoming Republican, said Trump could benefit from a choice “who is disciplined and who has a relationship with Congress. I would suggest a woman, because some of the remarks he has made about women aren’t going to help him appeal to some of the 53 percent of the voting populace who are women.”
Hatch also thinks Trump would benefit by having a female running mate. Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, thinks his best choice would be one of Trump’s current opponents, Ohio Governor John Kasich, both because of his reach in Ohio and because of his time as House Budget Committee chairman, when he served in Congress from 1983 to 2001.
“My advice to Trump would be to get Kasich on your side,” said Inhofe, who hasn’t endorsed any of the remaining candidates. “You have to get Ohio. And it also happens that he answers the deficiencies of Trump. He was active in rebuilding the military all the way back to the Reagan days. He’s one of the few who has been a Budget Committee chairman, so he knows how to balance the budget.”
Trump’s poll numbers with swing voters are “horrendous,” said Representative Joe Barton of Texas, and he would need to tilt toward them to avoid hurting vulnerable House and Senate Republicans who would share space with him on the November ballot.
“I can’t recall a candidate with such huge negatives among independents and cross-over Democrats that we would need to win the presidency and down-ballot races,” said Barton, who has endorsed rival Ted Cruz but says Trump is “inching closer” to the nomination.
Trump won all five states holding primaries Tuesday — Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, Delaware and Rhode Island — and earned a burst of momentum ahead of next week’s Indiana primary. He now has 992 delegates awarded, 80 percent of what he needs to clinch the nomination, according to RealClearPolitics.com. Cruz trails with 562 delegates, followed by Kasich with just 153.
Republican control of the Senate also is at stake in November and Trump’s candidacy could even challenge the party’s control of the House, elevating the angst over a possibly contentious convention in Cleveland in July.
Even as some Republicans say they still want to stop Trump, they acknowledge they may be powerless to do so — something that will become more clear if Cruz can’t best him in the Hoosier State.
“There’s still the possibility of denying him the nomination, but he had a good week,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who dropped out of the presidential contest and who is backing Cruz.
Trump is apparently planning to boost his outreach to lawmakers. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, said he’s been told that Trump will return to Washington to meet with lawmakers soon, although a date hasn’t been set. In March, Trump met with some House members who support him, but Cornyn said the next meeting will reach deeper into the ranks.
“Apparently he expects to come back in the future and to meet with people he doesn’t know and to talk about matters of mutual interest,” said Cornyn, who hasn’t taken a side in the Republican contest.
The Capitol hasn’t been friendly to Trump. Only one senator has endorsed him, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, although Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee praised Trump for a
foreign policy speech he delivered earlier this week.
Almost all senators are sitting it out after unsuccessful rivals they backed dropped out, although Cruz has endorsements of three — Mike Lee of Utah, James Risch of Idaho and Graham. Senator Pat Toomey said he voted for Cruz in this week’s Pennsylvania primaries.
In the House, at least nine Republicans have endorsed Trump.
While some Republicans have been critical about Trump’s policy pronouncements on immigration and other issues, others say he’s simply been too nonspecific on many matters and needs to work with lawmakers in the party on a more unified agenda.
“A lot of things he stands for are different than what we stand for,” said Representative Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican and co-founder of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. In particular, he said, Trump has no plan to balance the federal budget.
“He seems to have no particular plan to do that, except to make America great again,” Labrador said.
‘Ticket on the Titanic’
Some critics see little upside to Trump’s elevation — or for whomever would agree to join him on a ticket. Graham describes it as suicidal for the running mate.
“It would be like buying a ticket on the Titanic,” Graham said. “I don’t know why you would do that after you saw the movie.”
Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who has said he will boycott this summer’s convention if Trump tops the ticket, said the billionaire is looking “inevitable,” and Flake is increasingly blunt about what he sees as the party’s overall chances with the billionaire on the ballot.
“I don’t think that’s our best foot forward at all,” Flake said. “I can’t imagine serving with him and being forced to take some of those positions that he’s taken: ban on Muslims, build a wall and make the Mexicans pay for it. You name it, go on down the line.”
Still, Flake is one of few indicating they won’t back Trump if primary voters choose him. The real object for many — defeating Democrat Hillary Clinton — will prevail and provide a source of unity, many say.
Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, said Trump still has time to alter the negative perceptions of many voters, and his likely opponent has to battle those as well, Cole said.
“Candidates change and develop,” he said. “He’s fully tapped into something in terms of voter discontent. Obviously in a fall campaign, he has pretty high negatives, but so does Hillary Clinton.”