The political news this week is being dominated by reports of elephants breaking away from the herd: Republicans who are not supporting Donald Trump for president. They are most often being differentiated by exactly what they are saying or not saying: Some are simply refraining from opportunities to endorse their nominee; some are publicly refusing to endorse their nominee; a few are going to vote for the Libertarian or a last-minute conservative independent or write-in candidate; and a steadily increasing number are going over the brink to support Hillary Clinton, as one might expect with Election Day fast approaching. There’s no telling when the exodus will end; the latest Trump outrage, about “Second Amendment people” having some plans for HRC, is creating a fresh bout of heartburn for exasperated Republicans, and could send a new batch toward the exit ramp.
But in understanding this phenomenon and weighing its importance (or the lack thereof), it’s helpful to look at the non-endorsees and their backgrounds and motives. To that end, here’s a classification system of the five different kinds of Republicans who have broken ranks over Trump:
1. Nominal Republicans who are out of synch with their party:While they are not as plentiful as they were in the days when liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats walked the Earth, there are always some nominal partisans available, often long in the tooth, who object to the general direction of “their” party and can be rounded up to show their displeasure with a statement of dissent or a cross-endorsement.
2. Lame ducks. As James Hohmann notes in the Washington Post, the willingness of current Republican elected officials to stray from party discipline is more or less in inverse relationship to their vulnerability to punishment by Republican leaders and/or angry “base” voters. So, unsurprisingly, the two most prominent defectors in the House Republican Conference — Richard Hanna, a New Yorker who has endorsed Clinton, and Scott Rigell, a Virginian who will vote Libertarian — had already announced their retirements.
3. Political realists. There are also Republican defectors who seem to be motivated by cold political calculation. Most obviously, Illinois senator Mark Kirk’s slim odds of reelection almost certainly depend on winning a lot of votes from people who loathe Trump. But even his Senate colleague Susan Collins, who is being treated today as a brave woman of principle for refusing to get on the Trump Train, could be thinking about her political future in Maine, where according to Hohmann she could be contemplating a gubernatorial run as an independent.
More famously, Ted Cruz is clearly calculating his “vote your conscience” statement at the Republican convention will look infinitely better if and when Trump goes down to a catastrophic defeat, leaving his own self as the front-runner for 2020. John Kasich and Ben Sasse could be making similar calculations about their political futures.
4. Redundants. In many respects the most sympathetic group of Republican defectors are former environmental, immigration, and trade-policy officials who obviously have no place in a party led by Donald Trump. I mean, really: Let’s say you are Robert Zoellick, once George W. Bush’s United States Trade Representative. Trump is accusing you and people just like you of deliberately selling American workers down the river and destroying the country in close concert with the godless Clinton administration globalists in the other party (on top of that, Zoellick ran the World Bank and worked for Goldman Sachs!). Are you going to blandly endorse him or fight to win “your” party back? It’s a pretty easy call. The same is true of Republicans closely identified with comprehensive immigration reform and strong environmental regulation (e.g., former EPAdirector Christine Todd Whitman, who has indicated she will vote forClinton).
5. Assorted elites. For most of the rest of the elite defectors, the emphasis should be on the word “elite.” They are mostly former appointed officials in Republican administrations who have since moved on to life in that floating stratosphere of policy mavens, think tankers, lobbyists, and Cabinets-in-waiting. They are heavily found on that list of 50 Republican foreign-policy experts calling for Trump’s defeat.