Teddy, The Donald, And Shades Of Bull Moose: Could Republican Leaders Arrange A Third-Party Run?

With Donald Trump having secured the presumptive nomination as the Republican Party candidate for President of the United States, elite members of the party faithful have begun the search for an acceptable candidate to make a third-party run.

It is no secret that Trump has never been a favorite of the Republican establishment. Delegates or not, there is a solid base that will never accept him as leader of the party and would prefer one of their own make a third-party run. Opposition to a possible Trump nomination actually began with a 100-day campaign that started with the Wisconsin primary.

Trump sitting pretty
The Not Trump delegate campaign began with the April 5 Wisconsin primary, in which party leaders, led by Governor Scott Walker, took to radio airwaves to urge voters to cast their ballots for Mr. Trump’s closest competitor, Texas Senator Ted Cruz. This was followed up with a delegate-by-delegate lobbying effort, which failed when Sen. Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich suspended their campaigns after the Indiana primary this May. Mr. Trump, who had threatened a possible third-party run of his own if he did not win the nomination at a contested Convention, emerged from that state’s primary as the likely nominee, and the scramble to find a viable candidate for a third-party run began in earnest.

The possibility of a third-party run had been discussed prior to Trump becoming an unstoppable force. This past March, influential conservative leaders Bill Wichterman, an advisor to former President George W. Bush, Erik Erikson, the founder of RedState.com, and well-connected South Dakota businessman Bob Fisher had a closed-door meeting in Washington, D.C., with other top conservatives to discuss alternatives to a Trump nomination, including the best possible candidates for a third-party run. This palaver took place two days after the Florida and Ohio primaries, which firmly established Trump as the man to beat.

In truth, preparations for a possible third-party run by a Republican heavyweight began even before that March meeting. In February, major Republican donors engaged the services of an influential GOP consulting firm in Florida with a mandate to research the viability of mounting a late-stage third-party run. According to Politico’s Scott Bland, supporters of such a third-party run believed that this had to “happen before March 16, when inevitably Trump is the nominee, so that we have a plan in place.” Timing is critical in such an undertaking, as deadlines for collecting enough signatures to get an independent candidate on the ballot is as early as July in several states.

In many ways, all of this scheming to deny Trump the presidency and set up a favored son for a third-party run shows echoes of Theodore Roosevelt and his Bull Moose machinations. In 1912, upset with the conservative policies of his former vice president, Teddy decided to run against then-President Taft to regain the White House and reverse Taft’s use of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to bust up U.S. Steel. Taft was already being challenged by Wisconsin Senator Robert LaFollette and was understandably not happy with Roosevelt’s late entry into the race.

While Teddy held the edge in several progressive states, Taft and the leaders of the party controlled the mechanism whereby the nomination would be settled at the convention. Knowing that Taft would win the nomination, Teddy ordered pro-Roosevelt members of the party to abstain from voting, and the day after Taft secured the nomination, Roosevelt and his confederates organized their own party to facilitate Roosevelt’s third-party run.

The Progressive Party, also known as the Bull Moose party because Roosevelt told reporters inquiring about his third-party run that he felt as “fit as a bull moose,” drew 27 percent of the popular vote. Taft won a mere 23 percent, giving the Democratic opponent an easy victory with 42 percent of the vote. In real political terms, Roosevelt’s third-party run split the Republican vote, giving Woodrow Wilson an easy 435 electoral votes, while leaving Taft with eight.

It is yet to be determined who Republican leaders would tap for a third-party run. Names such as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, and House Speaker Paul Ryan have all been rumored as possible candidates for a third-party run. Whoever the choice, the shadow of Teddy Roosevelt and the Bull Moose party would loom large over him.

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