THE LEFTOVERS

Inside the Doomed Conservative Dump-Trump Plot

A group of powerful conservatives met Thursday to try to hammer out a plan for a potential third-party consensus candidate if Trump becomes the GOP nominee.

03.18.16 5:00 AM ET

The team that brought you Santorum 2016 has decided to stop Trump.

He must be petrified.

For seven hours on Thursday, a few dozen conservative leaders gathered in an upstairs room of the Army Navy Club off K Street in downtown Washington, D.C., to rack their collective brains—but reached no conclusion on how to thwart the billionaire’s rise.

Quin Hillyer, a National Review contributing editor, fielded questions afterward from print reporters and a Chinese camera crew, explaining that the group hoped all the 2016 presidential candidates who haven’t endorsed Trump will coalesce behind a unity ticket. He added that there wasn’t a consensus that conservatives should unite behind Ted Cruz.

“That was not the consensus,” he said, when asked about support for a Cruz-helmed unity ticket. “The consensus was that we need a unity ticket of some sort and we’ll let the candidates work out who the unity ticket is.”

He added that the group hopes someone other than Trump will be the Republican Party’s nominee.

“Obviously a third party or an independent bid is one other option,” he added. “But we didn’t come to any formal plans. We are exploring every option.”

Other attendees—including Bob Fischer, the president of Fischer Furniture in Rapid City, South Dakota, who quickly jumped in an Uber when approached by reporters after the meeting, and Bill Wichterman, a key Santorum booster and a top D.C. lobbyist—declined to talk about the closed-door discussion.  

The invitation billed the event as a meeting of “conservative leaders to strategize how to defeat Donald Trump for the Republican nomination, and if he is the Republican nominee for president, to offer a true conservative candidate in the general election.”

A copy of the invitation obtained by The Daily Beast showed it went to people on the email list of a group called Conservatives of Faith—a group that helped give energy to Rick Santorum’s 2016 presidential bid. The group came together in July of 2011 to connect evangelical leaders with presidential hopefuls. It’s loosely affiliated with another, larger group of powerful social conservative leaders called the Council for National Policy—which has endorsed Trump rival Ted Cruz.

The two groups sometimes have concurrent meetings so members can attend both.

Though the group has a history of helping Santorum, Thursday’s meeting wasn’t just a reunion of the former senator’s old advocates.

Conservatives of Faith held one of its first gatherings in August of 2011 at the ranch of Jim Leininger, a wealthy businessman who supports conservative Christian causes and school-choice efforts. Members of the group met at the ranch with Rick Perry and his wife, Anita, at the start of his 2012 presidential campaign.

Fischer, the furniture magnate, is a key organizer of the group. The invitation to Thursday’s meeting instructed respondents to RSVP to him directly. Acquaintances describe Fischer as “thoughtful,” “low-key,” “lovely,” “wonderful,” and capable of managing others’ big egoes. His basic belief, according to sources, is that if enough conservative Christian leaders get together in a room, discuss the issues, pray, and agree upon one battle plan or chosen candidate, that they will be able to accomplish their ends.

It’s an interesting theory. But—fortunately for Trump—it has a poor track record. A few weeks after Obama won re-election in 2012, the Conservatives of Faith group convened at a country club in McLean, Virginia, to gin up enthusiasm for a second Santorum presidential bid.

We all know how that worked out.

And though members of the Council for National Policy backed Cruz, he got schlonged in the evangelical-heavy Southern states where his team had hoped to do well. The fact that Donald Trump beat him by winning the evangelical vote indicates that evangelical Christian leaders—including those in the Council for National Policy and Conservatives of Faith—don’t have as much clout as conventional wisdom might dictate.

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Still, it features a number of evangelical power brokers.

Sources estimated that the Conservatives of Faith email list has upwards of 300 names on it. Phyllis Schlafly of Eagle Forum has been involved with the group in the past, but she endorsed Trump this cycle and didn’t attend the meeting on Thursday.

Trump won every state but Ohio on March 15’s Super Tuesday primaries. So today’s effort is just the latest setback for the #NeverTrump movement—an effort that may have come just after the nick of time.

Perhaps as a result, there is reason for skepticism as this latest faction of the Republican Party sets out to try to change the trajectory of the race.

Dennis Stephens, a long-time conservative lobbyist based in D.C. who backs Trump, said the group’s plans aren’t promising.

“Third party equals Hillary Clinton,” he said.