A band of exasperated Republicans — including 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, a handful of veteran consultants and members of the conservative intelligentsia — is actively plotting to draft an independent presidential candidate who could keep Donald Trump from the White House.
These GOP figures are commissioning private polling, lining up major funding sources and courting potential contenders, according to interviews with more than a dozen Republicans involved in the discussions.
The effort has been sporadic all spring but has intensified significantly in the 10 days since Trump effectively locked up the Republican nomination.
Those involved concede that an independent campaign at this late stage is probably futile, and they think they have only a couple of weeks to launch a credible bid. But these Republicans — including commentators William Kristol and Erick Erickson and strategists Mike Murphy, Stuart Stevens and Rick Wilson — are so repulsed by the prospect of Trump as commander in chief that they are desperate to take action.
Their top recruiting prospects are freshman Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a conservative who has become one of Trump’s sharpest critics, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who withdrew from the Republican presidential race May 4. Romney is among those who have made personal overtures to both men in recent days, according to several people with knowledge of the former Massachusetts governor’s activities.
Earlier prospects included former senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and retired Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis. Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and retired Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal have been bandied about as potentially potent political outsiders.
The recruiters also delved into the world of reality television for someone who might out-Trump Trump: Mark Cuban, the brash billionaire businessman and owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team.
Again and again, though, these anti-Trump Republicans have heard the same tepid response: Thanks, but no thanks.
“I don’t see it happening,” Cuban wrote in an email.
Cuban, a cast member on “Shark Tank,” the ABC reality series in which entrepreneurs pitch investors about their business ideas, said his pursuers — he declined to name them — have told him that his “bluster and volume, combined with substance and the ability to connect with voters on a more personal basis,” could make him a winning candidate.
“He could come after me all he wanted, and he knows I would put him in his place,” Cuban said of Trump. “All that said, again, I don’t see it happening. There isn’t enough time.”
To many political professionals, the notion of winning the presidency from outside the two-party system is pure fantasy. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg spent considerable time and money studying his chances for an independent run only to conclude in March that there was no plausible path.
Mitt Romney – 2012 Republican candidate
Further tempering the current talks on the right are fears that an independent conservative candidate could forever be a pariah by splintering the Republican vote and ensuring victory for the Democratic nominee.
“The career of the individual would come to an end, and he would have a difficult spot in history for being responsible for putting Hillary Clinton in the White House,” said Patrick J. Buchanan, a conservative who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2000 on the Reform Party ticket.
Buchanan was dismissive of the current efforts. “These are the mice trying to bell the cat — only they can’t get one mouse to go out and do it,” he said.
Draft promoters have been telling potential candidates that 2016 already has proved to be an unpredictable cycle and that anything could happen, such as Trump’s candidacy shriveling under the expected Democratic advertising assault. What’s more, they tell them, you would have no bigger platform to promote your ideas than in a three-way general election that would attract global attention.
Pollsters have been conducting private surveys over the past week to measure the plausibility of an independent candidate, said three people working closely on the project.