The first line of defense for establishment Republicans hoping to keep Donald Trump from carrying their party’s banner this fall is to prevent him from winning the delegates in the remaining primaries this spring.
If that fails, the next plan is to deny him a win at the GOP convention in Cleveland by peeling away pledged delegates on the second or third round of balloting.
And if that fails, a group of Republicans are readying a nuclear option: running a third-party alternative in just a handful of critical swing states in order to block both Trump and likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton from gaining the necessary 270 electoral votes required to claim the White House.
In such instances, according to the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, the choosing of the next president would then fall to the House of Representatives. In the House, each state casts one vote, and considering the current Republican majority in that chamber, would give the election to this newly created third-party ticket.
Among the dozen or so Republican operatives and donors who have been strategizing about putting this plan into action, the “12th Amendment Operation” has several advantages over plans to deny Trump the nomination at the GOP convention in July. Even if Trump fails to garner the 1,237 delegates needed to win before Cleveland—as seems likely—Republicans fear a massive backlash if Trump is close to achieving the delegate threshold, as also seems likely.
Although many Republicans worry that Trump on top of the ticket would lead to a wave of electoral defeats—not just for the presidency but for down-ballot Senate, House and gubernatorial races—there is also an acknowledgement among the Republican establishment that Trump has energized a portion of the electorate that does not often turn out in GOP primaries. And anything seen as “stealing” the nomination from the delegate-leader at the convention is likely to backfire.
A third-party spoiler candidacy however would not be officially sanctioned by the Republican Party, and so supporters of the plan believe it would be a chance to put a conservative Trump alternative into the White House without permanently turning off new, Trump-energized voters.
Unlike other plans to hatch a third-party campaign, which involve gathering millions of signatures to achieve 50-state ballot access as Ross Perot did in 1992, or somehow taking over an existing party, like the Libertarian Party, this “12th Amendment Operation” would be relatively straightforward.
Taking as a baseline that Donald Trump is likely to win anywhere from 140 to 191 electoral votes based on his strength in the South, the upper plains and parts of the Mountain West, organizers would focus on just handful of states needed to deny Clinton 270 electoral votes. Targeting just a couple of large, electoral vote-rich states—such as, say, Texas and Florida, or Ohio and Virginia— along with a handful of smaller states like Maine, New Hampshire or Nevada, would allow organizers to avoid wasting money on costly ballot access in the rest of the nation, and would permit a campaign to target all of their resources and campaign energy in just a few places.
The most immediate task for organizers is to settle on a candidate. The current plans call for a bipartisan ticket featuring a Republican elder statesman as the presidential candidate and anti-Clinton Democrat as the vice-presidential nominee. Jim Webb, the Republican turned Democratic senator who briefly ran for president last year, has been mentioned as one down-ticket possibility, under the theory that Webb could help exploit Clinton’s lack of popularity among white voters and possibly help deliver Pennsylvania or Virginia. For the top of the ticket, among the names being discussed are Tom Coburn, the former Oklahoma senator seen as a senior statesman among GOP faithful, and someone who has expressed an interest in taking part in a Stop Trump effort; former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; and James Mattis, a retired Marine general.
“We realize that this is not how we would have preferred this election season to go, but there is an acknowledgment that we are living in a period without real historical precedent,” said Rick Wilson, a longtime Florida-based GOP consultant who—after helping run a pro-Marco Rubio SuperPAC—has emerged as one of the leaders of the Stop Trump movement and has been helping in the 12th Amendment Operation planning.
“Trump would be box office poison for Republicans and may destroy the party for the forseeable future. There is a growing anxiety and a sense that something has to be done.”
Wilson declined to name who else was working on this effort, though he did say that it was around “12-15 people in the Republican firmament—consultants, elected officials and donors.”
Joel Searby, of the political polling firm Data Targeting, is also said to be spearheading the effort according to another Republican operative unaffiliated with the group.
However, among the diverse array of Republican forces aligned to halt Trump, there was some skepticism that sending the election to the House would save the country from the prospect of a Trump presidency.
“It sounds incredibly complicated. Anytime you get Congress involved you never know what is going to happen,” said Liz Mair, a well-connected GOP operative running a “Stop Trump” PAC that is focused on denying him delegates at the convention, and failing that, running a 50-state write-in campaign. “If the Republican Party doesn’t have the balls to deny Trump the nomination, they aren’t going to have the balls to do this. Look, I’d vote for a piece of dried dog turd before I’d vote for Trump or Hillary, but this sounds like the last, last, last, last, last, last resort.”
Only once before in American history has the House of Representatives chosen the president. In 1824, despite winning the most electoral votes, Andrew Jackson failed to win a majority in a four-way race. Members of Congress selected John Quincy Adams instead, in what came to be known as “The Corrupt Bargain.”