It’s not just Paul Ryan who’s hard to win over. Donald Trump faces struggle for unity in key states
At a time Republicans would normally rally behind their presumptive nominee, Donald Trump is facing continued resistance from GOP donors, grass-roots activists and other party loyalists in many of the battleground states he needs to win the White House.
Questioning his electability and doubting his convictions, they have vowed to expend their energies on races other than the presidential campaign.
“Everybody I know has their ‘I would rather,’” said Laura Carno, a conservative activist in Colorado Springs, Colo., who regards state and congressional contests as a higher priority than seeing the Manhattan business mogul and reality TV star in the White House.
Trump, lacking the long-term relationships and campaign infrastructure of previous GOP nominees, must rely on state parties, their voter contacts and the phone-bank and door-knocking support they muster to bolster what has largely been a Twitter- and national-media-driven campaign.
“That’s where the workers come from,” said former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis, who worked for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the primaries and is not ready to embrace Trump. “They do that grunty work that most people don’t want to do. They’re the ones having cold pizza and Diet Coke for breakfast because they were out late doing a [mail] drop the night before.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Unlike previous nominees, Trump can’t take that reflexive party support for granted. Rather, he must first work to mend relations frayed during his pugnacious campaign.
Backers of Trump, and sometimes the candidate himself, openly feuded with GOP leaders in a number of states, including several — Colorado, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia — that will probably be strongly contested this fall.
Though those party chiefs now profess their support for the presumptive Republican nominee, the depth of their commitment remains to be seen, as well as how readily they can marshal the donors, volunteers and other activists Trump will need to boost his chances in November.
“My sense is the Trump campaign has its work cut out for it” in Florida, said state Sen. Tom Lee, whose district sits on the Interstate 4 corridor, the swing part of the nation’s most populous swing state.
Feelings are still raw, he said, from Trump’s battering of rivals Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, the state’s former governor and its junior U.S. senator, who remain highly respected among donors and party loyalists.
“They didn’t just lose; they were insulted,” said Lee, who plans to vote for Trump but is uncertain what, if anything, he might do to help his candidacy.
In Wisconsin, Trump went largely unmentioned when 1,000 party faithful gathered Saturday for the state GOP convention in Green Bay.
Gov. Scott Walker urged them to “focus like a laser beam” on reelecting Sen. Ron Johnson, but did not try to rouse them on Trump’s behalf. He did not even say Trump’s name.
Personal taunting aside, many state and local party leaders have been put off by Trump’s generally harsh tone and belligerent attitude, as well as his inflammatory remarks.
When Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, the Republican Party chairmen in three of the earliest-voting states — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — were among those who joined House Speaker Paul D. Ryan in condemning the remarks, though each endorsed Trump once it became clear he would be the party’s nominee.
Ryan, the highest-ranking Republican leader in the country, has declined to endorse Trump but offered kind words after a peacemaking session Thursday on Capitol Hill.
Others feel no such obligation.
Art Pope, a major Republican donor and conservative activist in North Carolina, said he never supported Trump and that would not change. (Nor, he emphasized, would he back the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.)
Instead, Pope echoed Carno, the Colorado activist, saying he would focus on down-ballot races in his state, including the contests for governor and U.S. Senate.
Asked whether he was concerned that his lack of engagement would make it harder for Trump to carry North Carolina, a prime target of both parties, Pope replied: “Trump is going to have a hard time carrying a lot of states.”
Ohio may be the most important battleground of all; no Republican has ever won the White House without it.
When Trump visited ahead of March’s hard-fought primary, the GOP chairman reacted with sarcasm and a mocking impression of the brash businessman.
“Only winners will be allowed to attend this Yuge, beautiful event,” Matt Borges wrote. “If any losers, basket cases, choke artists, sweaty people show up, they will be deported.”
Borges was a strong backer of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who won his home-state primary but nowhere else. Borges now supports Trump’s effort to win the White House, said a spokeswoman, who described the chairman’s earlier, sardonic statement as satirical.
But asked how important Trump’s candidacy would be for the state party, the spokeswoman, Brittany Warner, demurred. She ticked off a number of significant races in Ohio this November, including a tough reelection fight for GOP freshman Sen. Rob Portman.
“At this point,” Warner said, “I don’t think it’s fair to say or to prioritize what’s going to be No. 1.”
There are, of course, state party leaders eager to embrace Trump and promote party harmony in their key states.
“We’re all marching to the same drummer here,” said Jeff Kaufmann, Iowa’s GOP chairman, who acknowledged some hard feelings at the grass-roots level, but expressed confidence those would heal in plenty of time for the fall campaign.
Besides, he pointed out, Bernie Sanders is still battling Clinton, and many of his ardent supporters insist they would rather stay home in November than support her as the Democratic nominee. “They’ve got some wounds to heal, too,” Kaufmann said.
Still, Trump faces the more serious breach — a political revolt with few parallels in modern times — and the more difficult task of building competitive operations in the dozen or so crucial states that will decide the presidential race. Strong support at the state-party level will be critical to those efforts.
“It’s a unique role that he clearly doesn’t appreciate,” Anuzis said. “He’s never had to do it. He hasn’t been a part of it.”
In some instances, Trump was not just indifferent but outwardly hostile toward state party leaders.
In Colorado, Trump’s complaints about the state’s arcane delegate selection process unleashed such an outcry that Republican Chairman Steve House received death threats.
House said he didn’t blame Trump personally for the invective, but still planned to bring a sheriff to the national convention to ensure the safety of Colorado’s delegation.
It would be nice, House said, if Trump made a gesture of goodwill toward the state, which could be one of the most competitive in November if he can improve his standing with women and Latino voters.
“He needs to come here,” said House, who recently invited Trump and top aides to meet with state party leaders and activists to discuss strategy. “The sooner that happens, the better off we’re going to be.”
Follow @markzbarabak and @melmason on Twitter for national and California politics.
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