February 25, 2016 — 2:00 AM PST
Donald Trump’s dominance has congressional Republicans in various stages of befuddlement, denial and, perhaps, the beginnings of acceptance.
Two House Republicans -- Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York -- were the first to endorse Trump, and others openly conceded being surprised by his dominance to date.
Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
"Everything I thought I knew about politics is out the window," said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, when asked Wednesday about Trump.
If there was any part of the Republican Party that early on could have led an effort to knock Trump out, it might have been the party’s senators, who had no fewer than four of their own -- Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham -- in the race.
Republicans have occasionally broken with some of Trump’s policy prescriptions -- notably his proposed temporary ban on Muslims coming from other countries. But the sustained assault never came, with senators unable to unite around an alternative and cowed by Trump’s rock-star popularity.
Members of Congress, after all, need Trump’s voters to win their own elections -- and they might end up having to back him in the end whether they like it or not.
Their largely hands-off approach helped create a vacuum for Trump’s anti-establishment message to thrive and grow to the point, perhaps, where it might be too late to stop him, even if they tried.
Angry ElectorateSenator Pat Roberts of Kansas acknowledged Trump has been rolling along, tapping into an electorate full of anger at President Barack Obama.
"He doesn’t get into policy specifics and people are not looking for that. They are looking for a strongman that says he can make America great again," Roberts said. "He’s done exactly that. And the person that I put the responsibility on for that is the president."
Roberts said people are angry at Obama’s efforts to transform the country, including with executive orders.
"That transformation has led to a lot of angst and anger among the electorate, hence the support for Trump. They don’t want to hear any details, they just want somebody to take over and knock this off."
Against TrumpSome lawmakers have been hoping to unite the party against Trump, including Mike Lee of Utah, who is friendly with Cruz and Rubio. Late Wednesday, Representative Trent Franks of Arizona called on both contenders to join forces.
"Mr. Trump’s inconsistencies and shifts on national security, the free market and protecting the unborn and the traditional family are indications of dissimulation," Franks said in a written statement.
But Trump’s three straight electoral victories have yet to prompt a strong assault. Indeed, each victory could make members even less willing to go on the offensive against the man looking more like their presumptive nominee.
Rubio CampRoberts, like many other lawmakers, said he endorsed Rubio, a senator from Florida, because he thinks he’d be the best candidate in the general election, but thinks Trump could also do well.
"If he keeps rolling like he is now, he could be just as effective in the general," Roberts said about Trump.
Roberts, asked whether the party would come together to back Trump, was matter-of-fact.
"We may have to," he said.
To be sure, Rubio backers are still clinging to the hope that their man will be able to break out at some point.
"I still think Marco has a very, very plausible path to victory," said Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. "I’m still confident he’s going to be the nominee and if he’s the nominee he’ll win the general election."
Time LeftToomey, who faces a tough re-election fight, didn’t want to speculate on a Trump victory.
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina predicted other senators would be endorsing Rubio and preferably sooner rather than later.
"Why wait on making a decision that seems like the pretty obvious decision to make?" Scott said.
But he emphasized Rubio, who has yet to win a state, still has time.
"This is a cross-country run, this is not a sprint, so there is plenty of time left," he said.
Senator Rob Portman of Ohio earlier this week also insisted that the man he’s backing, Ohio Governor John Kasich, still has a shot too -- another reminder that the party hasn’t fully united behind one challenger to Trump. And while Cruz, a senator from Texas, still does not have a single Senate endorsement, he has piled up a number of House conservatives in his corner.
Trump AdvantagesSenator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who has spoken positively about Trump as well as Cruz for taking hard lines on immigration and trade, said Trump has a set of advantages and policy provisions that have resonated with regular working people.
Trump, for one, doesn’t have to spend his time talking to donors, Sessions noted. And, he said, Trump has been very strong on those two issues from the start.
"What Trump understands is that we have the power" on trade, Sessions said. Other countries "have to have our market," he said.
"If we have a tough trade negotiator, I believe we can block and stop currency manipulations and subsidies and other trade abuses," he said. "The day is over that we should ever lose a single job as a result of trade cheats."
Sessions, who still hasn’t decided if he will make an endorsement, also questioned whether a flood of Washington endorsements for Rubio will help him much or simply give Trump another talking point about the Florida senator being the insider choice.
"This election is going to be decided by the people out there, not by people in Washington," Sessions said. "So I tell my Republican colleagues, ‘People are unhappy with Washington. I don’t know about you, but I’m on their side, I’m not happy either.’"
Sessions said too many other Republicans in Congress talk up bills they had passed, but said there isn’t much to show for their efforts so far.
After JebSenator Susan Collins of Maine, who said she’s still "in mourning" over the demise of Jeb Bush’s presidential bid, said it’s clear Trump is the frontrunner. She hasn’t endorsed someone else yet, but cautioned against assuming all of the other candidates’ supporters would automatically back someone other than Trump.
"I don’t think that’s an accurate assumption," she said.
Indeed, Chris Collins, like Susan Collins, had been a Bush supporter before he joined team Trump.