During fall 2011, Mitt Romney decided to take time off the campaign trail to pay a visit to midtown Manhattan. Carefully evading the press, he ducked into a classy high-rise on Fifth Avenue and ascended to the floor where one Donald J. Trump waited.
Trump was, at the time, a vocal critic of various presidential candidates and the primary peddler of the birther conspiracies swirling around President Barack Obama. Romney wasn't the only Republican in the field who felt the need to cozy up to the businessman. Still, the visit was odd, even uncomfortable. If anyone didn't need to kiss up to Trump, surely it was the patrician Republican with the high-minded sensibilities.
But Romney and his aides had made a calculation: They didn't need Trump's support so much as they needed to avoid his animus.
"What Mitt Romney was seeking was to have Donald Trump not crap all over our campaign for the entire year," Katie Packer, Romney's deputy campaign manager, said back in December. "He was either on your team and to some degree would be supportive… [or] he would be at your throat all the time. And so the calculation was made that it is better to have him on the team and whatever baggage that brings with us."
Fast forward four years and Trump's baggage remains a big problem. On Super Tuesday he won at least seven states, only reaffirming the likelihood that he will end up the Republican presidential nominee. And now the very people who decided it would be best to try and curry favor with him are left frantically trying to bring him down.
Minutes before results started coming in on Tuesday, The New York Times reported that an anti-Trump super PAC run by Packer was getting an infusion of donations, some of it coming from major contributors to Romney's presidential campaign.
It would be unfair to suggest that Romney’s voyage to Trump Tower that fall directly led to Trump’s success in the 2016 race. But it is abundantly clear that many in the Republican Party regret not having taken a stand against Trump far sooner.
The question facing these operatives, pundits and lawmakers now is not just how to wage a war against Trump before the July convention -- to keep him from collecting the 1,237 delegates he needs to win the nomination outright -- but whether the party can actually survive his candidacy at all.
"If anyone tells you they're not worried about the long-term viability and electability of the party when you look at Trump, they're lying," said Rory Cooper, a Republican operative who is vehemently opposed to Trump. "Some voters have shown a willingness to overlook the more extreme positions that Trump takes or condones to support his underlying strength and security rhetoric."
Conversations with multiple key Republicans over the past week revealed a stark sense of discomfort and fear. Months of Trump making outrageous, outlandish and decidedly racist remarks had not put a dent in his support. And the usual electoral trends -- in which the subversive, crazy elements are gradually suppressed with money, endorsements, organizational power and so on -- were not taking shape.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican up for re-election in Georgia, told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday that he would not endorse anyone this primary season like he had in the past. Why not?
"I'm on the ballot. I've got a primary," he said. Asked how he felt about his chances, he said, "I feel good. Which is why I'm going in here, because if I don't say something stupid in answer to a question, then I might win." He then ducked into a private lunch with other Republican senators.
Some Republicans, meanwhile, expressed cautious optimism that when the final nominee was chosen, the party's differing factions could be brought peacefully back together.
"If Trump becomes the nominee, he becomes the titular head of the GOP. He has to, at that point, recognize he can't win a race without the entire party," said Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. And if Trump were to somehow lose the nomination, Steele said, the nominee "will have to figure out how to work with Trump. If their attitude is let's dismiss him outright, they do it at their peril. He is going to play an important role as much as these folks don't want it and don't like it."
Donald Trump himself promised as much. "I'm a unifier," he offered in his victory press conference Tuesday night.
But there was also notable chatter that perhaps the GOP would be better off in the long run if it simply decided to write off the extreme elements of the Trump base, rather than try and cater to their demands -- to do, essentially, what Romney did not.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who lost his own bid in the GOP primary, said that Trump's base is made up of xenophobes. "I think 70 percent of his support comes from people who want to deport 'em all and wanna ban all Muslims,” he said. “That xenophobia's old, there's really nothing new going on. There have been other times in American history where people were scapegoating groups, particularly when times were tough.”
Several operatives compared the situation to what the party faced in the Mississippi Senate primary in 2014, when operatives swooped in to undermine the Tea Party favorite, Chris McDaniel, and send Sen. Thad Cochran back for a sixth term.
"That was about as nasty as you can get in politics," Brad Dayspring, then the communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told The Huffington Post in November of that year. "I was accused of murder. Directly accused of murder."
But the party doesn't have the capacity or moxie to do what it did in Mississippi on a national level. It certainly doesn't have the time. And so Republicans are left wondering just how to make their way out of this mess, not just in this cycle but for the elections to come.
"I think that the party can certainly recover from this, but the immediate task is trying to make sure we nominate somebody who shares our principles and does the job in the White House that we can trust," said Henry Barbour, a top Republican operative who supports Marco Rubio and is vocally opposed to Trump.
"We are deciding who is going to be our nominee to be the leader of the free world,” he said. “There is a lot at stake. Donald Trump is not fit to serve in the same office as George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln."
Barbour paused for a second. "It is a scary proposition."