On the eve of Super Tuesday’s crucial primaries, a sharp new divide erupted between Republicans who pledge to fall in line behind Donald Trump if he wins their party’s nomination and others who insist they can never back the bombastic billionaire.
The fissure could have major implications beyond the primaries, exposing the looming challenges in uniting the party after the election, no matter who wins.
Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, a rising star among conservatives, became the first current senator to publicly raise the prospect of backing a third party option if Trump clinches the nomination. In a letter posted online late Sunday, Sasse urged Republicans to consider whether a party led by Trump would still represent their interests.
“If our party is no longer working for the things we believe in — like defending the sanctity of life, stopping Obamacare, protecting the Second Amendment, etc. — then people of good conscience should stop supporting that party until it is reformed,” he wrote.
Other Republican leaders were less explicit, but sent similar messages on Monday, particularly in light of Trump’s refusal to immediately disavow former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s support.
Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 nominee, called that “disqualifying.” And South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, campaigning in Atlanta alongside Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, said she would “not stop fighting a man who refuses to disavow the KKK.”
Trump blamed a “lousy earpiece” and a misunderstanding for failing three times to condemn the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke in a CNN interview that prompted outrage from his rival presidential candidates.
Trump has won three of four early primary contests, roiling a party that had assumed his populist appeal with voters would fizzle. Instead, he’s only grown stronger and appears to be in a commanding position heading into Super Tuesday, the biggest single-day delegate haul of the year.
The Associated Press asked Republican senators and governors across the country if they would back Trump if he secured the nomination. Just under half of those who responded would not commit to backing him, foreshadowing a potentially extraordinary break this fall.
If Trump sweeps most of the states up for grabs Tuesday, he could amass a delegate lead that would be difficult for any rival to overcome. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is banking on a win in his home state to keep him in the race, while Rubio wants to stay close in the delegate count until the primary hits his home state of Florida on March 15.
Meanwhile, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is solidifying her lead. Like Trump, Clinton could begin putting her party’s nomination out of reach for rival Bernie Sanders with a strong showing on Super Tuesday.