Finley: Establishment plays a risky game with Trump

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
Chris Wallace, left, Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier moderate the debate.

A frantic day in the case of The Establishment v. Donald Trump ended on a debate stage in Detroit on Thursday night, as a desperate Republican Party stepped up its extraordinary campaign to destroy its own front-runner.

From the opening bell, the face-off at the Fox Theatre was all about taking down Trump.

Fueled by opposition research from a variety of political action committees formed by deep-pocketed Republicans, the attacks came one after the other, and focused on tearing down Trump’s image as a skilled businessman.

“He has spent a career convincing people he is something he isn’t in exchange for their money,” Sen. Marco Rubio said in an early heated exchange with Trump. “Now he’s trying to do the same thing in exchange for their country.”

Rubio was joined in the assault on Trump by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who many GOP old-liners find just as offensive as the real estate mogul. But for the moment, the priority is stopping Trump.

Millions of PAC dollars are being spent on a television campaign to highlight Trump’s faults and failings. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee, was trotted out earlier Thursday to argue that Trump presents a real threat to the security and economic stability of the nation.

Nothing like this has been seen in American presidential politics since 1972, when the Democratic Party solidified against segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who ultimately was stopped by a would-be assassin’s bullet.

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“Then, you had the entire Democratic establishment working together,” says Greg McNeilly, a west Michigan Republican strategist, who contends Trump is benefiting from the failure of the GOP mainstream to line up behind a single opposition candidate. “You can’t beat someone without unifying behind someone else.”

For the candidates hoping to defeat Trump, the risk of playing attack dog is that they diminish their own appeal to a national electorate.

“I think even more harmful will be to nominate Donald Trump, who will be an electoral disaster,” Rubio told The Detroit News this week. “Donald Trump won’t just lose badly, he’ll bring about the defeat of a lot of Senate candidates around the country, potential House candidates as well. It would be our worst showing at the ballot box in 40 years.”

McNeilly echoes the doomsday scenario: “Donald Trump is in a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. The party doesn’t want to be another one of Donald Trump’s bankruptcies. He will destroy the brand.”

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But there is a danger that Trump’s ardent supporters will abandon the Republican nominee if their guy is taken down by the establishment.

“It’s pretty bad they’re trying to drive a wedge in the party,” says Chuck O’Connor, a Royal Oak money manager who supports Trump. “I disagree that it’s establishment or bust. Trump is getting overwhelming support so far.”

Disenfranchising Trump voters is a risk the establishment is willing to take.

“It’s a catch-22 — the guy theoretically could be expanding the party, but not in the right way,” says Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan state GOP party chairman. “But a lot of Trump voters aren’t traditional GOP voters. They haven’t voted for us before, anyway.”

By targeting Trump so openly, the Republican Party leadership is effectively conceding the election if Trump wins the nomination. They’re handing Democrats a campaign strategy for the fall. But party leaders believe the Democrats will do it if they don’t.

“Only 20 percent of the electorate knows about his negatives” McNeilly says. “You can be sure Hillary Clinton will make voters aware. Do we wait for her, or do responsible people step up to make sure voters have that information?”

And while the narrative that Trump’s nomination is inevitable is gaining steam, there’s still an opportunity to derail him. Most states voting after Michigan on Tuesday will have either closed primaries or caucuses, limiting the ability of independents to influence the outcome.

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If he wins the nomination, McNeilly concedes Trump could win in November.

“It would be a pyrrhic victory, though,” he says. “It’s best to win elections in a way that builds, not destroys.”