By Chris Cillizza – – – –
Three things about Donald Trump have now become clear to the Republican establishment:
1) He might not implode before people start voting for president next year.
2) He could actually wind up as the Republican nominee for president.
3) That would be an unmitigated disaster for downballot Republicans running for Senate, House and other offices.
What NO ONE in the GOP establishment seems to be able to agree on is how to prevent the Trump-as-nominee scenario. This from Jonathan Martin’s terrific Trump piece in Wednesday’s New York Times:
But in a party that lacks a true leader or anything in the way of consensus — and with the combative Mr. Trump certain to scorch anyone who takes him on — a fierce dispute has arisen about what can be done to stop his candidacy and whether anyone should even try.
Some of the highest-ranking Republicans in Congress and some of the party’s wealthiest and most generous donors have balked at trying to take down Mr. Trump because they fear a public feud with the insult-spewing media figure. Others warn that doing so might backfire at a time of soaring anger toward political insiders.
I have an idea! And it involves, you, Jeb Bush! Okay, here goes.
Bush is in a very, very bad position in this race. He is at five percent in a new Quinnipiac national poll. That same poll shows that more than one in five Republicans won’t vote for him under any circumstances. He and his Right to Rise super PAC have spent almost $29 million on TV ads in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina with no recognizable positive movement in his numbers. Dead in the water is a fair way to describe Bush at the moment.
There is one thing that Bush still has going for him, though: Money.
Right to Rise raised more than $103 million in the first six months of this year. It spent — as I mentioned above — $28 million on ads. Let’s say the organization has spent another $15 million on fundraising, consulting fees and other miscellaneous costs. And let’s assume, just for the sake of this argument, that Right to Rise hasn’t raised ANY more money since June 30. (It, of course, has.) A little simple math gets you this: Right to Rise should have (at least) $60 million left to spend on this race.
That’s a ton of cash. And while I know Right to Rise already has a plan in place to spend down its massive wad throughout February and March (and beyond) in hopes that Bush, eventually, emerges as the top choice, I just don’t see a lot of evidence that the race will yield that scenario unless there is a massive shakeup some time soon.
So, why not change course and use all of that money to try to make such a shakeup happen? Simply put: Take all of the ad time Right to Rise has reserved in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and turn the firehose on full blast against Trump. I am talking about a sustained ad campaign whose sole aim is to disqualify Trump — not boost Bush. Sure, Bush and Right to Rise have jabbed at Trump — and a John Kasich super PAC has gone into full attack mode against The Donald — but no one other than the Bush forces have the money to maintain a sustained negative ad campaign against Trump in, at least, the first three voting states.
There’s some precedent for this tactic working in a race like this one. Back in 2004, Democratic forces aligned with John Kerry and Dick Gephardt took a flamethrower to Howard Dean’s candidacy in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina with a flight of ads that painted the former Vermont governor as an inexperienced and unsteady leader in a time of international crisis.
Dean collapsed heading into Iowa, an implosion credited — at least in part — to the ad campaign against him. Kerry, the safe, establishment choice who had looked like a loser just a few months before, rapidly emerged as the nominee. Sound familiar, Jeb?
Now, Trump is not Dean. Despite his many seeming gaffes and misstatements, the real estate billionaire’s support stays solid and, of late, grows. Those who have tried to attack Trump in the race to date have found themselves emerging much the worse for wear. It’s possible then that even a massive ad campaign that tries to kneecap Trump by Right to Rise could fail. And, because Trump is personally wealthy, he could — if he was so inclined — write his own $30 million check to counter the Right to Rise buy. (I’m skeptical of that since Trump hasn’t exactly been loose with his checkbook in the race to date.)
Sure, a sustained attack on Trump could, theoretically, boomerang back against Bush as Republicans — Trump supporters and not — come to see the move as dirty pool and punish Bush for what Right to Rise does. But, candidly, what the heck do Bush and his allies have to lose at this point? He’s absolutely nowhere in the race.
With a heavy and sustained ad buy against Trump, there is a not-insignificant chance that there is some real effect on the billionaire’s numbers. A Trump decline would greatly destabilize the current shape of the race. No one needs the current state of the race destabilized more than Jeb Bush. Period.
Bush — and the broader establishment that he represents — needs to understand that these are desperate times for them. Standing on the sidelines is no longer a viable option. Waiting for someone else to do it won’t work. Someone needs to step up and try to take Trump out if, indeed, the establishment believes that The Donald as the party’s nominee is a catastrophic situation.
No one is better positioned — or has less to lose — than Bush and Right to Rise. It’s time to take a chance.
Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.