Donald Trump’s dominance – and the late establishment effort to stop it

Updated 4:20 PM EDT, Wed March 16, 2016
TAMPA, FL - MARCH 14: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a town hall meeting on March 14, 2016 at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa , Florida. Trump is campaigning ahead of the Florida primary on March 15. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
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Story highlights

Donald Trump shocked the Republican establishment, which failed to heed the signs of seismic change.

Trump won Florida, North Carolina and Illinois on Tuesday.

John Kasich won Ohio, giving hope to the anti-Trump forces.

CNN —  

On the eve of the first Super Tuesday earlier this month, the siren call went out to Republican donors. Donald Trump was barreling toward the Republican nomination, and the chance to stop him was slipping away.

Throughout 2015, many top-flight Republican donors had stayed on the sidelines, waiting for a clear establishment front-runner to emerge. Then the unthinkable happened: Trump stepped into the void and began slaying his rivals one by one. None of them could figure out how to stop him.

The incredible momentum of his campaign stunned America and shocked the Republican establishment. Not only did the political world underestimate Trump’s electoral strength; for months they belittled his candidacy with all its theatrics as a joke and failed to heed the signs of seismic change.

During a long summer and fall of denial as Trump consistently dominated the polls, even the savviest of Republican operatives insisted that he would never stay in the race. Few GOP donors were even thinking about the need for a plan to defeat him. Moreover, each candidate was focused on their own campaign and felt no sense of obligation to risk their chances by trying to stop him.

The belated call to halt his march to the Republican nomination happened hours before Trump started rolling toward massive victories in Super Tuesday states — building what looked like an almost insurmountable lead in the delegate count. But Paul Singer, a billionaire who is one of the GOP’s leading bundlers, told fellow donors it was the moment to strike.

GOP’s Trump revolt: Too little too late?

“He is not Superman” who can only be destroyed “by kryptonite,” Singer said, according to several sources who heard the call and provided previously undisclosed details to CNN.

Singer and members of the Ricketts family — among the first top donors to get behind the anti-Trump effort — believed the “real” Donald Trump had not been unmasked to the American public. They had to make an impact by March 15 to unravel a brand Trump had been building for decades, but they felt the facts were on their side.

Joining Singer’s plea for an unrelenting assault portraying Trump as the self-serving foe of “the little guy” was Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Meg Whitman. Trump, she said forcefully, was driving an agenda of “hate and intolerance” that demonstrated he was unfit to be president.

GOP at war with itself

The previous week, Whitman and other top Republicans around the country had watched with alarm as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had endorsed Trump. They feared other establishment figures across the country would see Trump’s powerful allure to voters and start falling in line behind him.

It was late, but it wasn’t over, Whitman assured donors on the call. The fight for delegates could go on for months.

“We have a shot at turning this around,” Whitman told them, appealing to their patriotism and telling them they had “a duty” to step up.

A brief question-and-answer session followed. One donor set the tone with his query: Where should he wire the money?

Trump’s Super Tuesday #3

The anti-Trump donor call that day set in motion what would become the end-run at the real estate mogul to prevent him from steamrolling through the winner-take-all contests that started Tuesday night on Super Tuesday #3 with Ohio and Florida. This account of their uphill climb and the unpredictable trajectory of the 2016 campaign is based on interviews with more than two dozen strategists, campaign aides, donors and party operatives.

Trump’s foes reasoned that if they could not defeat him outright, they wanted a split decision at the very least. They got a version of that Tuesday: a John Kasich win in Ohio and a nail-bitingly close contest between Trump and Ted Cruz in Missouri. Originally a Marco Rubio win in Florida had looked possible – but Rubio ended his campaign Tuesday night after a humiliating defeat in his home state.

5 takeaways from Super Tuesday 3