The GOP is readying for a fight as Trump is gaining steam

The Takeaway
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (C) holds a news conference with fellow Republican leadership on possible Supreme Court nominations after their Republican party caucus luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington February 23, 2016.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (C) holds a news conference with fellow Republican leadership on possible Supreme Court nominations after their Republican party caucus luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington February 23, 2016.

Gary Cameron/Reuters

Congressional Republicans don’t care for Donald Trump, and they’re not afraid to say it.

“We’ve been reporting over the weeks about all the consternation and angst among congressional Republicans about the prospect of a Donald Trump nomination,” says Takeaway Washington Correspondent Todd Zwillich. “Now, the consternation is open and explicit.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly told his congressional colleagues that they will drop the GOP presidential frontrunner “like a hot rock.” On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan came out to denounce Trump for not quickly rejecting the endorsement of David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader.

"This party does not prey on people's prejudices,” Speaker Ryan said. “We appeal to their highest ideals. This is the party of Lincoln. We believe all people are created equal in the eyes of God and our government. This is fundamental, and if someone wants to be the nominee they must understand this. I hope this is the last time I need to speak out on this race."

Why all the hostility? Donald Trump is putting congressional Republicans in a dangerous spot. Some lawmakers in purple states fear they will lose their races if they don't support Trump, while McConnell reassured other Republican members that they could run negative ads against Trump if his candidacy threatens their re-election.

Despite the tension, Trump is hoping to make some friends on Capitol Hill.

"I'm going to get along great with Congress,” Trump said at a victory rally on Tuesday night. “Paul Ryan, I don't know him well, but I'm sure I am going to get along great with him. And if I don't he's going to have to pay a big price, OK!?"

Because Speaker Ryan is the chairman of the Republican National Convention, he has typically avoided discussing the race for the White House.

“He doesn't want to dive into the fight that’s going on out on the campaign trail, but felt compelled to” in light of the David Duke controversy, Zwillich says.

Normally the leading lawmakers of a political party would be celebrating a candidate sweeping the polls in Super Tuesday. Instead, McConnell and Ryan had to make it clear that they disavow the KKK leader.

“It’s a messaging disaster so far,” says Zwillich.

In the hallways of Capitol Hill, the pushback from the Republican leadership isn’t always welcomed.

“If you talk to some backbench Republicans in the Senate, they’re kind of transactional,” says Zwillich. “They say, ‘Well, people will make calculations — if Donald Trump is going to bring a lot of people out to the polls, maybe for some folks it won’t be such a bad thing? You adjust your message.’ People will calculate like that. But nobody in the Senate Republican leadership — the guys responsible for getting people elected — think that at all.”

One such Republican is Senator John Cornyn from Texas. He is second in command within the Senate GOP leadership.

"I don't know what's going to happen in November, but I'm concerned that if you have a controversial and unpopular figure running at the top of the ticket, obviously it's going to have an impact on our ability to maintain a majority in the Senate," Senator Cornyn told Zwillich.

Another member of the Republican leadership, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, feels similarly.

"I hope that when our nominating process is through we have somebody we can unify behind, but I do think that members of Congress and senators who are running this year, they need to focus on their own races, they need to take care of business at home and win their races,” he said.

Zwillich says that establishment Republicans are currently planning to start anti-Trump Super PACs to raise millions to fight against the GOP front runner.

“[Former GOP contender and U.S. Senator] Lindsey Graham himself, the man who goes around and says that Republicans are in a world of hurt, said something remarkable yesterday to a group of us,” says Zwillich. “He said, ‘You know I never thought I’d have to say this, but we’re going to have to rally around Ted Cruz; maybe that’s the only way we can stop this.’ Lindsey Graham and people like him in the Senate and the establishment, and Republicans who have run before, that’s a thing they never wanted to have to say.”

This story was first published by PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.