Anger, denial and resignation are all on display in the chamber as Republicans watch their presidential primary unfold.
Some Republicans are in denial. Others are mad, or clinging to hope that voters will defy the polls. Still others are gloomy over the race.
For the rest, there’s acceptance.
Collectively, the Senate Republican Conference is undergoing the five stages of grief as it grapples with the growing possibility of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz at the top of the GOP ticket — a predicament many members believe would result in sweeping losses for their party in November. Not a single senator has endorsed either candidate, and the universe of potential Cruz or Trump supporters in the chamber can be counted, at this point, on one hand.
Yet the criticism of Trump is muted. Even Cruz, the most loathed man in the chamber, is drawing far less fire than usual as he concentrates more on the campaign and less on tweaking his Senate colleagues.
As painful as it is for many of them, Republicans are coming around to the idea that Trump or Cruz may well be their nominee.
“I think that’s a possibility,” Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said when asked whether Republicans were finally accepting that Trump could be their standard-bearer. “Everybody is waiting to see whether or not the polls coincide with the voters.”
The few senators who have endorsed are still in denial about the rise of Trump and Cruz. Jeb Bush can still win, his supporters insist. Never mind that the former Florida governor is barely cracking the top five in national and early-state polls.
“Iowa and New Hampshire are going to tell us a lot, and I don’t think it’s over,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “I support Jeb Bush, and I think he’s going to come through. All he has to do is show in a couple of these early ones.”
Similarly, fellow Bush backer Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) refused to admit defeat: “You just never know.”
Other GOP senators, upset at where the Republican Party finds itself on the cusp of caucus and primary votes, are directing their anger at the candidates or the media. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) headed to Iowa this week for a last-ditch anti-Trump campaign.
The freshman senator is trying to lead the conservative brigade against Trump. He has fired off pointed questions to Trump on Twitter — even touching on the billionaire businessman’s extramarital affairs — and on Wednesday, he pressed his argument to Iowa voters that Trump would be as bad as, if not worse than, President Barack Obama himself.
“We have a post-constitutional party in this country, and we don’t need a second one,” Sasse said in a telephone interview from Iowa as he prepared to introduce long-shot candidate Carly Fiorina. “I would love to have Mr. Trump explain his views on the Constitution. This is a guy who said when he’s elected president he can do whatever he wants. What does that mean?”
And after The Associated Press reported that Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who’s up for reelection, had told donors he’d rather have Bernie Sanders as president than Cruz, Burr took out his frustrations on the media.
“I’m not answering any presidential questions,” Burr told a reporter who asked him Wednesday who he’d prefer to run with at the top of the ticket. “Journalists can’t get it right.”
Other Republicans were more in a state of resignation: There’s nothing they can do themselves to stop Trump or Cruz, they said; at this point it’s in voters’ hands.
As Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) put it: “I don’t think I have the ability, even if I wanted to, to influence who the next nominee is going to be.”
“It’s early. And polls don’t vote, people vote,” Cornyn said. “You’ll see a winnowing of the field, and you’ll see people gaining momentum that perhaps aren’t in that top two.”
Anxiety is more acute among GOP senators running for reelection in purple and blue states. Trump or Cruz could turn off the swing voters they need to win — but criticizing the duo now could be devastating if either candidate becomes the nominee.
Asked who he doesn’t want to run with, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) stated: “I would never say.” He repeated what’s become a cliche for vulnerable Senate Republicans: I’ll back the eventual Republican nominee, whomever he or she is.
Others, unburdened from imminent campaigns, would go only a bit further.
“The Republican nominee has to appeal to a broader swath than what you’re seeing, conversations and topics that we see in a primary,” added Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “And I think that’s a real challenge.”
Coats was among the few GOP senators to concede that the party may end up with Trump. Privately, Senate Republicans believe the business mogul is more likely to be the nominee than Cruz, though that could just be their anti-Cruz bias speaking as much as Trump’s position in the polls.
A Trump or Cruz nomination “certainly could be the result,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of leadership facing reelection. “I just think things are likely to look significantly different than they do right now. They almost always do.”
It’s hard to overstate the spectacle that a Cruz or Trump nomination would bring to the senior ranks of the GOP. Imagine vulnerable Republican senators breaking with their own presidential nominee to save their own hides, or party leaders being forced to praise a senator who they privately revile.
Many Capitol Hill Republicans may tiptoe around the possibility of Trump or Cruz, but their sympathies are apparent from the endorsements dozens of them have given to Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
“I will tell you what Republican senators tell me in private,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “They’re just wringing their hands: ‘Is this as good as it gets? Is this what we’re going to end up with?’”