The End of the GOP?

Are we witnessing the end of the Republican Party? That's a pretty stunning question to ask, but we're living through a pretty stunning presidential nomination fight, so it can no longer be avoided or ignored.
03/02/2016 08:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, accompanied by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, speaks during a newsconf
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, accompanied by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, speaks during a newsconference on Super Tuesday primary election night in the White and Gold Ballroom at The Mar-A-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., Tuesday, March 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Are we witnessing the end of the Republican Party? That's a pretty stunning question to ask, but we're living through a pretty stunning presidential nomination fight, so it can no longer be avoided or ignored.

Donald Trump actually did worse than expected in last night's Super Tuesday, winning only seven out of 11 races (some had predicted he'd win 10 or even all 11 of them). So far, he's got a total of 10 wins out of 15 primaries -- a commanding lead, but not quite enough to secure the nomination yet. But he's indisputably the frontrunner, and it's hard to even see a path for anyone else to wrest the Republican nomination from him, at this point (at least, a path that doesn't involve some hanky-panky with the convention's rules).

It wasn't supposed to end this way, obviously. Republicans, early on, bragged about what a "deep bench" they were drawing from, with an astounding 17 candidates running. This large field was diverse (much more so than the Democrats, this time around), with two Latinos, a woman, an Asian-American, and an African-American in the mix. Now, however, they're down to only four candidates left (Ben Carson dropped out today), and the only one who looks even remotely presidential is the weakest of the remaining bunch.

The Republican Party establishment didn't just drop the ball on this one, they may have actually allowed their party to be stolen away from under them. The two strongest candidates who remain are equally unsatisfactory to the establishment types, and the only other two guys left can't seem to beat the frontrunners.

This has led to a major freakout among many within the Beltway. Republicans are turning on each other with a vengeance, and this is only going to get uglier over time. Many had convinced themselves that Trump's popularity was some sort of fluke and that nobody would actually vote for him. Those delusions are now gone -- it is impossible to still believe this when Trump has won two-thirds of the states that have voted.

Parties have nominated presidential candidates before that party insiders disagreed with, but this somehow feels different. There is a palpable fear among many Republicans that putting either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz at the top of their ticket would mean absolute disaster -- not only for the party's chances of winning the White House, but also for a whole lot of down-ballot races. Loss of control of the Senate is a real possibility, although no matter what happens Republicans will likely keep the House (due to gerrymandering, mostly).

What is truly extraordinary is how many high-ranking party officeholders are already running as fast as they can away from Trump. Again, this feels a lot different than a normal intra-party feud. I can't remember ever before hearing a party leader in the Senate telling his colleagues that it'll be OK for them to run against their own party's nominee during the general election. And Mitch McConnell is not the only one making such pre-emptive moves. Many Republicans are openly stating that they'll refuse to support their party's presidential nominee, and it's only March. This is just the beginning of a very nasty battle within the ranks between those who accept and support Trump and those who openly are fighting against him. Within the same party.

Some said that when the Republican National Committee forced Trump to sign a loyalty pledge that Trump got the better of the deal because it meant that all the other candidates had to pledge to support Trump if he won the nomination. I didn't totally believe it at the time, but now it's pretty obvious that the loyalty pledges could become a major albatross for many.

There was much speculation, when Trump first began his run, that he'd eventually lose the GOP nomination and launch a third-party bid. Indeed, that's what the loyalty pledge was all about. But now the more-plausible scenario is that Trump wins the nomination, and the Republican Party leaves the Republican Party, to launch a desperate third-party bid of their own.

Not since Strom Thurmond stormed out of the Democratic convention (to form the Dixiecrat Party) has America seen a possible partisan schism of such magnitude. With Trump in control of the Republican Party, those who cannot support him may peel off and form some sort of Federalist Party (or whatever name they come up with) in response.

Of course, when parties split in two there are only two real possible outcomes, at least if American history is any guide. Either the new party lasts for an election cycle or two and then fades away or the old party they split from disappears eventually as everyone abandons it. The Dixiecrats were an example of the first outcome, and the last example of the second was the Whigs.

If Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee by winning over half the convention delegates, what sounds highly improbable may actually come to pass. The Republican Party could split into two entities. How this might happen is anyone's guess. It could be a dramatic walkout at the convention, or it could be a behind-the-scenes gradual abandonment. The "can't support Trump" Republicans in the party establishment might quit en masse and immediately create a new party's establishment. Then all the current Republican officeholders would have to choose whether to stay with Trump's GOP or to move to the new organization. This could hollow out whatever's left of the Republican Party, which would mean Trump would have to rebuild the party apparatus from scratch. Hobbling his bid for the presidency in this fashion would be a big incentive for those who can't stand supporting him.

The Neo-Republican Party (or whatever it is called) will, of course, face a steep hill when it comes to getting themselves on all the state ballots. The two major American parties have long colluded over placing such hurdles in front of third parties, but with enough money and effort these stumbling blocks can be overcome (the question of how long it would take might be crucial, however, for ballot access in this year's election).

What this would mean in Congress is also anyone's guess. If everyone who now has an "R" after their name decided to switch to the new party, then Trump would be left essentially on his own. But there are already some senators and representatives who support Trump, so what is more likely is that Congress has three parties (at least for a while). This would, obviously, complicate the power structure, but probably wouldn't lead to a full-on parliamentary system of minor parties banding together. Who knows, though -- it's so unprecedented in modern times that anything could happen.

Like the famous line about a Vietnamese village, the Republican Party might have to be destroyed to save the (Neo-) Republican Party. Such a split would almost assuredly guarantee that Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election this time around, but if the new party grew in strength after Trump's defeat (while the old Republican Party faded away), then we could be back to the same two-party system by the next presidential election -- the only difference would be that one of those parties would have a new name.

Over the past decade or so, it has been a measure of faith within Democratic ranks that the Republican Party was doomed to eventual irrelevance because the demographics of the country have changed so much that their base is going to eventually disappear. Democrats have, after all, won five of the last six popular votes for president. However, during this time Republicans have actually grown in strength, outside of the race for the Oval Office. Republicans have improved their power base in statehouses across the country and in Congress. So even if they rename themselves, Democrats shouldn't automatically assume that this is the end of the opposition party. They could come back as strong as ever, under a new name.

Will Donald Trump go down in history as the man who killed the Republican Party? It's impossible to predict the chances of this actually happening right now. But if it does happen, it could happen very soon -- within the next few months (to give them enough time to get on all the state ballots). All sitting Republican officeholders will then have to make a choice -- stick with Trump or flee to the new party.

The vicious infighting has already begun. Chris Christie is taking a lot of heat from fellow Republicans for so prominently backing Trump. Some are so disgusted with what's going on within their own ranks that it wouldn't take much to convince them that the Grand Old Party was, indeed, over -- and that it was time to turn out the lights and move on.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant