Talk in G.O.P. Turns to a Stop Donald Trump Campaign


Quiet conversations have begun in recent weeks among some of the Republican Party’s biggest donors and normally competing factions, all aimed at a single question: How can we stop Donald Trump?

Republican strategists and donors have assembled focus groups to test negative messages about Mr. Trump. They have amassed dossiers on his previous support for universal health care and higher taxes. They have even discussed the creation of a “super PAC” to convince conservatives that Mr. Trump is not one of them.

But the mammoth big-money network assembled by Republicans in recent years is torn about how best to defuse the threat Mr. Trump holds for their party, and haunted by the worry that any concerted attack will backfire.
In phone calls, private dinners and occasional consultations among otherwise rivalrous outside groups, many have concluded that Mr. Trump’s harsh manner and continued attacks on immigrants and women were endangering the party’s efforts to compete in the general election. Yet after committing hundreds of millions of dollars to shape the Republican primary contest and groom a candidate who can retake the White House, the conservative donor class is finding that money — even in an era of super PACs and billion-dollar presidential campaigns — is a devalued currency in the blustery, post-policy campaign fashioned by Mr. Trump, driven not by seven-figure advertising campaigns but by Twitter feuds and unending free publicity.

“People are somewhat perplexed by the whole Trump phenomenon,” said Ray Washburne, a Dallas businessman who is Gov. Chris Christie’s finance chairman.

So far, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group and a Republican media buyer, there has barely been any advertising targeting Mr. Trump. Out of $90 million worth of ads reserved or bought in the Republican primary, just $1,300 has been spent attacking Mr. Trump — an ad in Spanish that ran briefly in California that was sponsored by a Spanish-language television network.

The Club for Growth, which has spent millions of dollars on feisty intraparty campaigns attacking Republican candidates who deviate from conservative economic orthodoxy, appears closest to moving against Mr. Trump, soliciting advice from among its members and researching potential lines of attack.

The group helped torpedo the populist presidential bid of Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, in 2008, and has long been a thorn in the side of Republican leaders — making it, many Republicans believe, a credible foil to Mr. Trump.

But the club’s president, David McIntosh, said his group was still grappling with how to handle the protean Mr. Trump, whose appeal is based less on policy positions than on tapping into the raw anger of Republican voters against Washington leaders. Mr. McIntosh said some members had told him they agreed with Mr. Trump’s critique of Washington’s ineffectual establishment even if they did not regard him as very principled.

“Part of our research has been why would a conservative Republican voter find this appealing,” Mr. McIntosh said. “A wonkish explanation that trade is actually good for the country probably won’t assuage them.”

In interviews, several savvy and typically confident Republican donors and strategists seemed puzzled about how to topple Mr. Trump, increasingly worried about the feelings he has stirred among the activist base and uneasy about the consequences for the party.

Andy Sabin, a New York supporter of Jeb Bush, said the question of what to do about Mr. Trump had come up repeatedly on the Hamptons fund-raising circuit this summer, as what seemed like a summer romance by disenchanted conservatives blossomed into a full-blown insurgency.

“He’s been a topic, and he obviously disgusts a lot of people, because he’s been vile,” said Mr. Sabin, who is also a donor to American Crossroads, the party’s leading super PAC. “But he’s also been able to bring out what people feel about their government.”

The cost of an anti-Trump campaign would be daunting: Reshaping opinions about Mr. Trump, a candidate with universal name recognition and a knack for garnering free airtime and column inches, could cost as much as $20 million. A sustained campaign aimed at Fox News viewers could cost $2 million a week, one Republican consultant working for a rival candidate estimated, while a more targeted effort, aimed at Iowa caucus-goers later this fall, would require as much as $10 million.

And there is no certainty of success: A group identified with the Republican establishment would risk ending up in a war with Mr. Trump, while a new group — such as a political nonprofit to which other donors and organizations could secretly funnel cash — would play into Mr. Trump’s comments about lobbyists and corporations scheming to prop up his rivals. Mr. Trump also has begun to preview such attacks.

This week, he lambasted both Karl Rove, a Crossroads co-founder, and the Club for Growth, which he said once asked him for a million-dollar contribution. (A club spokesman said that Mr. Trump asked for the meeting with Mr. McIntosh, which took place in May.)

“Many Super Pacs, funded by groups that want total control over their candidate, are being formed to ‘attack’ Trump,” Mr. Trump said Tuesday on Twitter. “Remember when u see them.”

Trump has been disturbingly been set loose in the land and his shtick is traceable to the same DNA that allowed "you lie" to be insultingly...

Some Republican Party leaders continued to hold out hope that the improvisational Mr. Trump would prove unable to convert his popularity and name recognition into a campaign organization capable of winning primaries next year, as the lazy summer months give way to a grinding ground campaign in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. But several donors and strategists acknowledged that their earliest hope — that Mr. Trump would fade away on his own — was looking less likely every day.

“Obviously the discussions have changed to say, ‘He’s someone who’s going to be there right to the end,’ ” said Ronald Weiser, a real estate developer and former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.

While many Republican leaders and donors are convinced that something must be done to stop the billionaire Manhattan developer, few seem ready to take him on directly, given Mr. Trump’s tendency to counterattack viciously.

Allies of Mr. Bush, arguing that Mr. Trump helps the former Florida governor by stealing voters and attention from other anti-establishment candidates, remark that perhaps donors to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, or Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, might take the lead in financing a Trump takedown.

Mr. Walker’s supporters, in turn, suggest that the work might best be handled by a super PAC with plenty of cash but an underperforming candidate — like Rick Perry, the former Texas governor.

“Everybody’s got different agendas and different conflicts,” said Austin Barbour, an adviser to a group of super PACs, known as Opportunity and Freedom, that have raised more than $17 million to back Mr. Perry, whose own campaign is floundering and bankrupt. “Our No. 1 priority is to go take this fight to support Governor Perry. There’s a lot of time here.”

The biggest outside groups not tied to a specific candidate — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the political network of Charles G. and David H. Koch and the Rove-founded American Crossroads — are for now staying clear, although the Koch organizations have conspicuously snubbed Mr. Trump in several ways, declining to invite him to their policy forums or give him access to their state-of-the-art voter database.

Among Republican strategists not working for the campaign, the emerging consensus was that voters would need to be persuaded by the candidates themselves, not by super PACs. Yet candidates like Mr. Cruz have not only avoided criticizing Mr. Trump, but have praised him, hoping to position themselves to pick up his supporters should Mr. Trump falter.

One Republican strategist described “a sigh of relief around town that the Bush campaign finally did something,” referring to Mr. Bush’s decision this week to release a video of Mr. Trump looking askance at Iowa, describing himself as “very pro-choice,” and calling for tax increases on the rich.