Republicans are officially in last-resort mode: They're considering a third-party candidate to sabotage Trump — and that will blow up in their faces, too

The GOP is facing an electoral nightmare, trotting another (losing) candidate out there will just enrage the base

Published May 6, 2016 9:56AM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (AP/Gerald Herbert)
Donald Trump (AP/Gerald Herbert)

The Republican establishment has run out of options. They've tried, repeatedly, to thwart Trump's march to the nomination. First it was Jeb Bush; then it was Scott Walker; then Marco Rubio; and finally they were down to Ted Cruz and John Kasich. Nothing has worked. The Republican primary voters have spoken: They want Donald Trump. After his crushing victory in Indiana this week, Trump is now the face of the party and its presumptive nominee.

That leaves the GOP in a precarious position.

A Trump-led ticket could mean not just a landslide electoral college loss but also a disaster for down-ballot races across the country. Since there isn't much the GOP can do at this point (Trump has already clinched the nomination), they appear to be exploring their final contingency plan: running an independent conservative to siphon votes from Trump.

There are two reasons to do this, neither of which lead to a Republican in the White House in 2016 – that dream is all but dead. The Huffington Post's Sam Stein and Ryan Grim explain:

“A traditional conservative on the ballot who could peel a few points away from Trump would virtually assure Hillary Clinton of victory – giving business-minded conservatives who prefer Clinton a way to support her without having to support her directly. As importantly, a third-party conservative candidate could potentially draw in Republican voters disaffected by having Trump on the top of the ticket, thereby giving a much-needed boost to down-ballot candidates.”

This isn't a new idea. People like Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, were floating this proposal months ago. Kristol wrote in March that this “would simply be a one-time emergency adjustment to the unfortunate circumstance (if it happens) of a Trump nomination...It would support other Republicans running for Congress and other offices, and would allow voters to correct the temporary mistake (if they make it) of nominating Trump.”

Notice how condescending that statement is. Trump hasn't won the nomination by “mistake.” This wasn't an accident. This is the deliberate result of a democratic process. He's the overwhelming choice of Republican primary voters. Republican hacks like Kristol have yet to reckon with this reality, with the fact that the Republican Party they've built no longer exists. It's Trump's party now.

At any rate, the third-party gambit was always considered a last resort, but we're now officially in last resort mode. It's much easier said than done, however. The barriers to entry are significant. For one, it's a “kamikaze mission,” as Stein and Grim put it. Not only would the third-party candidate be guaranteed to lose, he/she would also be blamed for costing Republicans the election. That would be false, as the electoral map already portends doom for the GOP, but that would be the post-election narrative in any case. Good luck convincing someone to fall on that political grenade.

If Republicans do miraculously pull this off, it won't amount to anything. Michael Steele, the former RNC chairman, put it best: “In the end, I don't believe it will happen. No one would get behind that person. Want proof? The Stop Trump 'Movement.'” And in the unlikely event an independent candidate runs and helps sink Trump's campaign in November, the GOP would permanently alienate a vast segment of their base, which would hold the establishment responsible for electing Clinton and, perhaps more egregiously, for undermining the will of Republican voters.

If that isn't a lose-lose proposition, I don't know what is.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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