A loose-knit band of conservatives have a new strategy to stop Donald Trump from becoming president: create a third-party political home for conservatives dissatisfied with the GOP.
The informal group led by talk-radio host Erick Erickson, former Bush administration official Bill Wichterman and businessman Bob Fischer also wants to go beyond the November election by creating a new conservative movement.
The group is "not yet prepared to discuss names" of its potential candidate, a spokesman told AMI Newswire. But he did lay out the group's wider strategy.
The group — which is often called "Conservatives Against Trump" but does not have a formal name — has been searching for an alternative to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee since March.
That's when Erickson, Fischer and Wichterman, among others, called on like-minded anti-Trump conservatives to join them in Washington, D.C. to discuss ways either to stop Trump from getting the nomination in July, or back a conservative to stop him in November.
So far, these efforts have been glaring failures. Trump is now the only candidate left in the race, with 1,086 delegates. With no competition and 505 delegates left to be won in the remaining state primaries, Trump appears on an easy course to pick up the 1,237 delegates needed to win on the first ballot at the Cleveland convention.
As Trump's rise to presumptive-nominee status has accelerated, the strategy has shifted to an effort "to find a third-party candidate who would be viable as a challenger on two paths," said the group's spokesman, who did not wish to be named.
"The first is to win. The second is to give Republicans an incentive to show up in November when many of them would otherwise stay home," he said, noting that protecting Republican House and Senate candidates, who may be in danger of losing if Trump's campaign falters, "is a necessary part of the strategy."
If Trump "does co-opt the Republican Party, conservatives will need a new home even if a third party cannot win this year," the spokesman said. "Much like the Republicans did not win in 1856, but did in 1860. If Trump continues on his present course, we may want an exodus from the GOP."
So far, however, conservative donors have not stepped up.
"A number of donors who sat out the primary process or funded the opposition to Trump have expressed a willingness to help fund both ballot access and raise funds for a third party," said the spokesman. "At this time, however, we have not locked in commitments."
The group is also giving close study to state ballot access laws for presidential candidates.
According to Richard Winger, editor of "Ballot Access News," it is still feasible for an independent presidential bid to get on the ballot in all 50 states, despite a Monday petitioning deadline in Texas.
A 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Anderson v. Celebrezze, held early petition deadlines as unconstitutional, Winger told AMI Newswire.
"We have won 55 lawsuits against early petition deadlines around the nation, and some are raging now," Winger said, adding that Texas may have a difficult time defending the fairness of its May petitioning deadline in federal court.
Elsewhere, Winger noted that independent candidates have options to get on the ballot.
"Every state has procedures for new parties to get on the ballot, and every state has procedures for independent presidential candidates to get on the ballot," Winger said.
"In 10 states, the procedures for new parties are easier than the procedures for independent candidates," Winger said, adding that independent candidates could get on the ballot using "existing, one-state qualified parties, plus the Reform Party, which is happy to cooperate."
This approach "is under consideration and may very well be the path of least resistance," said the spokesman for the anti-Trump group. But, he said, "The easiest plan is to focus on keeping the candidates below 270 electoral votes, but that does not preclude us from trying to get a third party to 270 votes."
If no presidential candidate reaches the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, the selection of the next president would fall to the 115th Congress, which will be sworn in on January 3, 2017.
The last time the House decided the winner of a presidential race was in 1824, when it selected John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson. Jackson supporters charged a "corrupt bargain" had been struck between Adams and fellow presidential candidate Henry Clay to deny Jackson the White House.
In 1876, Congress created a special 15-member Electoral Commission to sort through accusations that some states' electoral votes were improperly cast. The Commission eventually picked Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as the winner over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. Tilden's supporters thereafter referred to Hayes as "Rutherfraud," believing their candidate had been cheated out of victory.
Such historical precedent doesn't faze the anti-Trump group.
The candidate's "erratic campaign and statements help neutralize" any controversy that may arise from throwing the election to the House of Representatives, the spokesman said. "One of the major premises is that we need a third party to hold onto down-ballot races including Senate and House races," the group's spokesman said.
"If we lose the House [in the November general election], we would certainly expect the Democrats to go with their nominee," he said. "But without a viable third-party challenger, the odds of losing the House are higher."