I’d feel sorry for them, if we weren’t all in the same boat.
The Republican presidential primary just blew through New York, pushing mainstream Republicans further into despair. In all likelihood, the nominee of the Party of Lincoln will be either an egomaniacal, insult-slinging billionaire or a far-right Tea Party idealogue. The spectre of frontrunner Donald Trump – fresh off Tuesday’s landslide win here – or Ted Cruz carrying the GOP flag come November has longtime party faithful mistily clutching their Reagan/Bush campaign buttons and wondering how things went so horribly wrong.
“Trump is the Kardashian-ization of government and politics,” said Kevin Hardwick, a four-term Republican county legislator who has taught government and politics at Canisius College for 26 years. “His insults upset me, but beyond that is a lack of knowledge. He reminds me of the kid in class who hasn’t done the reading, but wants to talk anyway.”
Hardwick blames party leaders for miscalculating Trump’s populist appeal and not anticipating Jeb Bush’s flameout. Voters disdained Marco Rubio, leaving the polarizing Cruz as the flawed fallback to Anybody-But-Trump.
The far-right Texas senator has positioned himself to capture what will likely be a brokered convention in July. Yet he is disdained by colleagues as a Machiavellian schemer. And he is remembered as leading the anti-Obamacare push in 2013 that shut down the government for 16 days.
What’s an establishment Republican to do?
“I share some of Cruz’s conservative principles, but he’s unwilling to compromise,” Hardwick said. “You can’t go shutting down the government, it hurts the Republican brand.”
Hardwick backs Ohio governor John Kasich, a relative moderate and the only Republican who currently beats likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the polls.
“Now the Republican establishment is waking up and saying, ‘Oh God, did we really get in bed with Cruz?’ ” Hardwick said,
For mainstream Republicans, the fear is that either leads the party off a cliff in November.
Cruz would be the furthest-right Republican nominee since Barry Goldwater got pasted in 1964. He questions climate change, opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, wants to “carpet bomb” ISIS strongholds embedded in civilian populations, would eliminate the IRS and his flat-tax plan – according to the Tax Policy Center – threatens Social Security.
Trump is a trash-talking outlier who wants to wall off Mexico, deport all illegal immigrants and kill the families of terrorists – and whose stances on abortion and gay rights seemingly shift with the wind.
Brett Sommer teaches history at North Tonawanda High School, has “self-identified” as a Republican since age 6, served as a town councilman and ran for Congress. He can’t believe the race has come to this.
“I get that people are angry, that (Washington) Republicans abandoned their economic principles and didn’t stand up enough to Obama,” Sommer said. “But I can’t fathom why anyone would think Trump, with no experience, can do this job.”
It’s no coincidence that both Trump and Cruz invoke a “stock the shelter” reflex for many Americans. According to last week’s NBC/WSJ poll, either is beaten in the general election by likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, despite her hefty “unfavorable” numbers. Cruz (unlike Trump) loses by single digits. But nearly twice as many voters view him unfavorably (49 percent) as like him (26 percent). For Republicans, it could be a grim November.
“Cruz is fairly far out there, at the extreme right with his voting record,” said Jacob Neiheisel, University at Buffalo assistant political science professor. “He’s not who the party would ideally like. But Trump is so polarizing, establishment Republicans are worried about long-term party prospects and brand name.”
“I’m worried about what happens to my party afterwards,” Sommer said. “Cruz moves us further to the right, and he probably loses just as big as Trump in November. Yes, we need immigration reform. But that wall of Trump’s might be the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard.”
Beyond that, Trump’s bluster and belittling re-shaped the Republican primaries as a Jerry Springer-style circus.
“Running for president shouldn’t be like an episode of ‘Jersey Shore,’ ” Sommer said. “All the coarseness we’ve seen in the culture the past 10 or 15 years is manifesting itself in his campaign.”
All of which would be easier to take, if Trump wasn’t blasting his way through the primaries – with Cruz close behind. Mainstream Republicans wonder what’s become of their party. Hard-core Democrats wonder what might become of their country.