Trump’s nomination takes the Republican Party away from the elites and hands it to the disaffected base

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Cleveland

A strong undercurrent of missed opportunity ran through the Republican National Convention, which ended here Thursday night with the presentation of Donald Trump as the party’s presidential nominee.

Even as establishment Republicans who fought the New York billionaire’s nomination lined up behind him — some enthusiastically, some resignedly — or were ostracized for not doing so, many in the GOP left Cleveland with a sense that the White House is a fat, juicy plum that will remain out of their reach this year.

“If we don’t win, it’s a huge, blown chance,” says Jim Barrett, former CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. “This election was handed to us. Hillary Clinton is very beatable.”

Despite the rousing ovations during Trump’s acceptance address in the Quicken Loans Arena, the convention exposed the ongoing divisions within the Republican Party. No chasm is greater than the one between the GOP’s funders and bosses and its grassroots. And the former is heartsick over what might have been.

Hillary Clinton, who will be nominated for by Democrats in Philadelphia next week, would rank as the most unpopular presidential candidate in modern history, if Trump’s negative ratings weren’t even higher. A Washington Post/ABC News poll finds more than half of Americans believe Clinton should have been indicted for the use of a private email server to send and receive classified information as secretary of state. American voters don’t trust her, and don’t like her.

Any one of the 16 Republicans vanquished by Trump in the GOP primaries would have started the race against Clinton with a huge edge in terms of trustworthiness and favorability. But Trump’s own high negatives and the fact that he alienates a large swath of the general electorate, many of whom say they are afraid of him, cancels out that advantage.

“I think a different candidate would have had an easier time of it,” says Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, who supported Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in the primaries but will vote for Trump. “She is imminently beatable. It’s important for Trump to prove himself and start earning broad support.”

Huizenga, who faces nominal competition in his re-election bid, is worried about what happens down the ballot in state House and local races if Trump doesn’t perform well in November.

“This could get ugly,” he says.

Along with regret, there’s also resentment. A common complaint from the establishment is that the Republican National Committee should have corralled major GOP donors behind one or two candidates. The belief is that in a much smaller field, Trump would not have prevailed.

Betsy DeVos, a Michigan convention delegate and major GOP funder, is not sure anything could have derailed Trump.

“Trump didn’t spend a lot of money and yet he still won,” she says. “And a lot of the candidates who ran against him were very well-funded.”

DeVos, like many longtime political observers, is stunned by how this campaign season has played out.

“This is an election cycle unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed,” she says. “A lot of people are surprised that we are where we are, and are having to adjust to that reality.”

The reality is that Republicans are finally going to test the theory that the grassroots of its party are a better picker of presidential candidates than are the elites. Having lost with mainstream candidates Mitt Romney and John McCain, the GOP is now rolling the dice with the perhaps the riskiest nominee who has ever stood for the White House.

If Cleveland demonstrated anything, it is that the is party remains at war with itself, shredded to tatters by those who are weary of following the dictates of the check writers and convinced a bragging, swaggering real estate developer and reality TV star can restore the glory of the Reagan Revolution.

“For good or bad, Trump has tapped into a nerve that is very real,” DeVos says. “We can’t deny that.”

It is the people’s Republican Party now, and whether they end up being right or wrong in November, the GOP may never be the same again.

nfinley@detroitnews.com

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