The Slatest

Now that Rubio’s Gone, Who Is the Next Establishment Favorite?

Donald Trump talks with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during a campaign rally at Lenoir-Rhyne University on March 14 in Hickory, North Carolina.

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

The establishment king is dead! Long live the establishment king?

Marco Rubio, the man who was hyped as the savior of the Republican Party after its previous preferred candidate went out with a whimper, officially called it quits on Tuesday night after being humiliated in his home state of Florida. The first-term senator’s departure was overdue, but it nonetheless created an opening in what once was called the establishment lane and now might better be dubbed the well, I suppose I gotta endorse someone category. The problem for the GOP establishment, though, is that it’s having even less luck picking between two non-Trump candidates than it did when it had 16 to choose from.

On Wednesday, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley—who previously endorsed Rubio to much fanfare in the days before the Florida senator got smoked by 10 points in the South Carolina primary—threw her support behind Ted Cruz. Though as opposed to a flashy campaign event to sell Cruz to voters, she instead decided to whisper her sales pitch to a higher power. “My hope and my prayer is that Senator Cruz can pull through this,” she told reporters. Meanwhile, that same day, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe—who previously endorsed Rubio months before he went on to finish in third-place in the Oklahoma primary—tossed his support behind John Kasich in a press release that wasn’t exactly dripping with excitement either: “Out of the three still in the race for president, John is my guy.” As my colleague Jim Newell has explained, this failure to coalesce around a single alternative to Donald Trump remains a major problem for those still hoping to stop the GOP front-runner from winning the nomination. Thanks to the many quirks of state primaries, a split non-Trump vote—even if it’s only between two men—is likely to be enough to allow Trump to turn a plurality of votes into a majority of delegates.

But for all the #NeverTrump talk, it’s worth remembering that the ad hoc—though well-funded—movement does not speak for the entire Republican Party. The same day Haley and Inhofe were taking a second bite of the endorsement apple, Florida Gov. Rick Scott was taking his first. “I believe it is now time for Republicans to accept and respect the will of the voters and coalesce behind Donald Trump,” the Republican declared on Facebook. Scott isn’t alone when it comes to card-carrying members of the GOP on Team Trump either. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Maine Gov. Paul LePage, former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, and more than a half-dozen current and former GOP congress members have formally endorsed the celebrity billionaire too. (And, depending on your definition of the term establishment—admittedly, an imperfect catchall—that list could also include a certain former vice presidential nominee with a penchant for political slam poetry.)

In fact, if you look only at endorsements by Republicans currently in office, Trump can lay claim to having roughly as much establishment support as either of his two remaining rivals do. Much of the party remains on the sidelines, but FiveThirtyEight’s endorsement tracker—which weights the endorsements of congress members (1 point), senators (5 points), and governors (10 points)—illustrates my point: Cruz sits atop the scoreboard with 62 points but leads Trump by only 12 points and Kasich by 15. And if you remove Cruz’s Tea Party friends in the House, the competing interests of the GOP establishment become even clearer. To date, Cruz has been endorsed by a total of three governors, the same as Trump and only one more than Kasich, and one senator, the same as Trump and one less than Kasich.

The list of elected officials who have jumped from a ship that sunk to one that is still afloat tells a similar story. Five backed Cruz, four endorsed Trump, and two went Kasich:

  • South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley went from Rubio to Cruz
  • Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador went from Rand Paul to Cruz
  • Michigan Rep. Justin Amash went from Paul to Cruz
  • Arizona Rep. Trent Franks went from Mike Huckabee to Cruz
  • Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner went from Jeb Bush to Cruz
  • Maine Gov. Paul LePage went from Christie to Trump
  • California Rep. Duncan Hunter went from Huckabee to Trump
  • New York Rep. Chris Collins went from Bush to Trump
  • New York Rep. Tom Reed went from Bush to Trump
  • Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe went from Rubio to Kasich
  • Michigan Rep. Mike Bishop went from Bush to Kasich

Yes, these Republicans were acting in their self-interest, (Hello, Chris Christie!) but like their party’s primary voters, they can only select from among the options they’re presented with. And that is why if—or more likely when—Trump secures the GOP nomination, you can expect plenty more to come around to the man they’re now warning will be the end of the party. To paraphrase Sen. Inhofe, out of the one Republican still in the race for president, the Donald will be their guy.

Read more Slate coverage of the GOP primary.