WASHINGTON — As the Republican race tightens into a two-man affair, some establishment Republicans, who were initially concerned about Donald Trump’s dubious relationship with conservatism, have started suggesting Trump would be a preferable nominee to Ted Cruz.
But there’s one group still unwilling to commit to the real estate mogul, even as he wins over its base of activists: conservative leaders fueled by the rise of the tea party.
Several tea party leaders — many of whom wrote pieces for the “Against Trump” issue of National Review last week — are rallying behind Cruz and making a last-minute effort to educate their base of activists on Trump’s past positions on a range of issues from healthcare to eminent domain.
“Over the years, there have been endless fractures in the façade of individual freedom, but three policies provided the fuel that lit the tea-party fire: the stimulus, the auto bailouts, and the bank bailouts,” wrote Glenn Beck, one of the most popular conservative talk radio hosts, who endorsed Cruz at a rally on Saturday. “Barack Obama supported all three. So did Donald Trump.”
The magazine’s anti-Trump issue comes after a group of 50 conservative leaders settled on pledging their allegiance to Cruz in a private meeting inside a boardroom at the Sheraton Hotel in Tysons Corner, Virginia, National Review reported last month. Leaders of socially conservative groups, who have endorsed Cruz, are especially wary of Trump — something the Texas senator has capitalized on lately with his “New York values” attack line.
And even among groups that haven’t yet endorsed Cruz, the issue remains that Trump just doesn’t have a very conservative policy record or platform, especially for the more libertarian-minded conservatism that originally fueled the tea party.
“When you get into the intellectual right, Trump isn’t going to do well,” said Sal Russo, chief strategist of Tea Party Express. “His appeal is more emotional — let’s give them hell in Washington type.”
Tea Party Express, which has not endorsed in the primary, has been regularly polling its members over the last few months. The most recent poll conducted in January found Cruz in the lead with Trump on his heels, Russo shared with BuzzFeed News. In November, the group had Carson and Cruz in the lead and Trump toward the bottom — in ninth place. But with Carson fizzling out, Trump has climbed up rapidly in the group’s polls in just the last two months.
Candidates have been moving around a lot in the poll because it’s been hard for tea party activists to settle on one candidate given that the movement has so many divergent voices and attitudes, Russo said, but Trump's trajectory has remained upward. The leaders who have come out in support of or against either Cruz or Trump run the risk of “getting carried away and losing where the flock is,” he added.
Another major group, FreedomWorks, also hasn’t endorsed yet and has been hosting cattle calls for presidential candidates, but members of its staff have expressed concerns about Trump’s past positions on health care, taxes, and private property rights.
Jason Pye, the spokesman for the group who has written at least two pieces critical of Trump for its members, said Trump has “tapped into something very real,” but the group is still in wait-and-see mode when it comes to the presidential race.
“In terms of how FreedomWorks feels about Trump, we have concerns about his past policy positions as well as the many tens of thousands in contributions and endorsements he has given to Democrats,” Pye said.
At FreedomWorks’ last summit back in September, Cruz won the straw poll with Trump coming in third. The results could be very different at its next gathering in March after the early state primaries.
The fiscally conservative Club for Growth has essentially been the only group among the establishment and far right to actually spend money on targeting Trump. The group has aired ads attacking Trump for supporting liberal policies, but their efforts couldn’t keep the real estate mogul from continuing his rise in polls.
Some conservatives are also making the electability argument. In a recent op-ed, Brent Bozell III, a prominent leader of the tea party movement, encouraged fellow conservatives to rally around Cruz over Trump.
"There’s nothing the Left would like more than to see Donald Trump win the GOP nomination,” Bozell wrote. “He cannot, will not defeat Hillary Clinton. She will be our next president, and God help us then. Only Ted Cruz can defeat Trump; and if he does, he’ll defeat Hillary.”
But activists drawn to Trump’s outsider rhetoric believe the leadership ranks within the tea party movement are wrong about Trump’s electability and that his level of conservatism should be irrelevant, said Wayne Allyn Root — a businessman and Trump backer who gave the tea party response to this year’s State of the Union.
“I’m not going to tell you that Trump’s the most conservative,” he said in an interview. “Ted Cruz wins that mantle, but Trump is the most electable. Working class voters love Trump. He’s got an edge that no other candidate has.
“And No. 2, I’m not worried how conservative someone is as long as they are willing to change Washington…I don’t think anyone has the chutzpah to do what Donald Trump is going to do."