ST. LOUIS — A growing divide has emerged in the Republican Party’s unruly presidential contest, as the race bid farewell to a once-powerful White House contender. On one side stands billionaire businessman Donald Trump and his allies, on the other are those who oppose him.
A day after Rick Perry, Texas’ longest serving governor, ended his second Republican presidential run with a whimper, Trump marked the shake-up by embracing his role as his party’s 2016 bully on Saturday.
“Mr. Perry, he’s gone. Good luck. He was very nasty to me,” Trump told Iowa voters after touting his tough-talking style in an interview.
“It’s an attitude that our country needs. We get pushed around by everybody,” he told Fox News. “I think it’s part of the reason I’m so high in the polls. We have to push back.”
Perry had all but declared war on the billionaire businessman in July, calling Trump “a cancer on conservatism” who could destroy the Republican Party. On Saturday, Trump’s campaign was soaring while Perry’s White House ambitions were dead. And with the real estate mogul suffocating the rest of the packed field, it’s only a matter of time before he helps push another GOP candidate out of the race.
Perry was a leading voice in the anti-Trump movement, a group that has suffered in the polls as Trump’s public allies largely avoid backlash from the anti-insider wave that made Trump the unlikeliest of Republican presidential front-runners.
Republican officials and donors alike are left in a state of mass confusion about Trump’s remarkable staying power despite his repeated gaffes and inexperience on key issues.
“There is no play in the playbook for where we are right now,” said John Jordan, a California winery owner and major Republican fundraiser. “Donors don’t know what to think. Nobody saw the Trump phenomenon coming. Probably a lot of Jeb donors wish they had their money back.”
In still-early polls, the real-estate mogul and reality TV star has more support that the once-top-tier trio of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio combined. In second, by the way, is another political rookie: Ben Carson, a retired surgeon who repeatedly refused to criticize Trump in recent days.
Perhaps Trump’s biggest ally, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, declined to address the Trump effect on Perry’s exit.
“I recognize that the media enjoys seeing Republicans bicker back and forth with each other and throw rocks at each other. But I think the American people could not care less,” Cruz told reporters Saturday after addressing the same gathering of social conservatives in St. Louis that Perry shocked the night before with his surprise announcement.
“We have a tremendous field of candidates – probably the greatest group of men and women,” Perry said Friday evening. “I step aside knowing our party is in good hands, as long as we listen to the grassroots, listen to that cause of conservatism.”
Perry on Friday made several sly references to Trump, a last warning of sorts to a GOP experiencing its most serious identity crisis in a generation. Trump may favor tax increases on the rich, once supported abortion rights, gave money to Hillary Rodham Clinton and said kind things about government-run health care in other countries, but he’s become the GOP’s unquestioned presidential front-runner.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, among Trump’s chief critics, wondered aloud what is happening to his party: “What does it say about GOP when a 3 & half term Gov w/ a successful record of creating jobs bows out as a reality star leads in the polls?” Paul tweeted shortly after Perry’s departure.
Perry’s allies at three well-funded super PACs found they couldn’t share the money they’ve raised or coordinate their activities with his campaign. Austin Barbour, a leader of the pro-Perry super PACs, said the groups have as much as $13 million in the bank. He planned to talk Saturday morning with lawyers to “see what the law says we can do with this money.”
Perry’s Republican rivals praised him publicly and privately – and began courting his political network. Cruz on Saturday said Perry did “a remarkable job as governor” and praised him for running “an honorable campaign.”
A person close to the Cruz campaign, who was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity, says the fellow Texan’s camp will be “immediately” reaching out to Perry donors and supporters. “If we don’t jump in, other campaigns are going to try to,” the person said.
Meanwhile, as Perry’s political career was ending, Trump spent his Friday basking on “The Tonight Show.” As his appearance drew to a close, host Jimmy Fallon proposed a new campaign song for Trump to consider, an anthem by DJ Khaled called “All I Do Is Win.”
“What do you think?” asked Fallon.
“Honestly,” Trump beamed, “it happens to be 100 percent true.”