SUN CITY, AZ — Fearful of a Donald Trump nomination to lead the Republican party, conservative leaders huddled privately in Washington on Thursday in search of a plan to stop the billionaire businessman. His Republican rivals braced for another Trump victory next week, this time in delegate-rich Arizona.
The Republicans have an eager alternative in Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, yet some party leaders are exploring “other avenues” instead of rallying behind the fiery conservative, an ominous sign that Republican leaders’ deep dislike of Cruz complicates their overwhelming concern about Trump.
“The establishment is like a wounded animal, now cornered,” said Mark Meckler, an early leader in the tea party movement. “They are terrified, irrational and flailing wildly.”
Even after being denied victory in five contests Tuesday, Cruz insists he still has a path to the 1,237 delegates necessary to claim the Republican presidential nomination. In the U.S. primaries voters elect delegates representing the candidates who then vote at the parties’ conventions to pick a candidate.
“This is the moment for all those who believe in a strong America to come together and craft a new path forward,” Cruz declared on Twitter while conservatives were meeting in downtown Washington to brainstorm ways to stop his party’s front-runner.
Organizers of the meeting included conservative commentator Erick Erickson and Christian conservative leader Bob Fischer. The goal, as stated in the invitation, was “to strategize how to defeat Donald Trump for the Republican nomination, and if he is the Republican nominee for president, to offer a true conservative candidate in the general election.”
The group released a statement after roughly four hours behind closed doors calling for a “unity ticket that unites the Republican Party.”
While many in the room supported Cruz, they declined to endorse the Texas senator or the only other remaining presidential contender, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and instead urged all former Republican presidential candidates to unite against Trump. They also embraced the possibility of a contested convention.
“Lastly, we intend to keep our options open as to other avenues to oppose Donald Trump,” they said, an apparent reference to a possible third-party candidacy that might stop Trump but would likely sacrifice the Republican Party’s chances in the general election to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Amid the Republican chaos, Democratic front-runner Clinton focused on fundraising as her campaign begins to look ahead to the general election. She claimed a fifth victory in Tuesday’s primaries, as rival Bernie Sanders conceded defeat in Missouri.
However, Sanders continued to campaign aggressively ahead of contests next Tuesday in Arizona and Utah.
Arizona residents are far more likely to see commercials for Sanders than for any other candidate in either party, advertising tracker Kantar Media’s CMAG shows. Though trailing badly in delegates, he is spending about $1.8 million on Arizona ads, triple Clinton’s media plan.
STEVE PEOPLES, Associated Press
NICHOLAS RICCARDI, Associated Press
Peoples reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Julie Bykowicz, Julie Pace, Andrew Taylor, Stephen Ohlemacher and Chad Day in Washington and Kathleen Ronayne in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.