WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump and Republican Party leaders are confronting an uncomfortable new reality: They may not like each other, but they may need each other.
That’s forcing an awkward reckoning on both sides as GOP lawmakers struggle to make peace with the divisive billionaire as their presidential standard-bearer, and Trump’s team seeks to bulk up its unconventional campaign with the party’s organizational prowess.
The New York real estate mogul claimed two more Republican primary victories Tuesday, in West Virginia and Nebraska, contests where he was virtually unopposed given that his Republican rivals dropped out a week ago.
“As we turn our focus toward the general election, we want to make sure there’s the strongest partnership,” Republican National Committee chief strategist Sean Spicer said of Trump.
Indeed, both sides say they will move forward in a “partnership,” even as some top Republican leaders and donors continue to resist Trump’s candidacy.
It is a relationship of necessity, not choice. Trump’s bare-bones campaign has glaring deficiencies the RNC is uniquely positioned to address.
The New York businessman has largely ignored collecting information on voters he needs to turn out in November, dispatched very few staff to battleground states and taken no steps to build a fundraising network. Trump told The Associated Press in a Tuesday interview he would not rely on public financing, a decision that forces him to quickly assemble a donor network capable of raising the estimated $1 billion needed to run a modern presidential campaign. It is a task that previous campaigns took several months to complete, likely pushing him to rely on the RNC’s extensive donor network.
“There are many ways that they could work together,” said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s top ally on Capitol Hill. “It would be important that they have a good partnership in this election, maybe more than others.”
Trump officials were briefed earlier in the week on the RNC’s general election operation, which includes a multi-million dollar voter data operation backed by more than 200 paid staff in key states. Discussions between the Trump campaign and party leaders will continue Thursday when the presumptive nominee treks to Capitol Hill for private meetings.
He’s scheduled to meet first with party Chairman Reince Priebus and House Speaker Paul Ryan, followed by a second meeting with Ryan and his House leadership team. Trump is also expected to meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The meetings mark a critical step to address tensions between the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee and its national elected leaders.
At the same time, Republican leaders in the Senate and at the RNC are urging the party’s rank and file to unite behind the billionaire and turn their energy toward battling Democrat Hillary Clinton this fall.
“We have a nominee, it looks like he may well be very competitive, and we want to win the White House,” McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Tuesday. He added, “We know that Hillary Clinton will be four more years of Barack Obama. I think that’s going to, in the end, be enough to unify Republicans.”
RNC officials are encouraging skeptical conservatives to unite behind Trump. “The sooner the better,” Spicer said.
That’s even as Ryan, the nation’s top elected Republican, refuses to endorse Trump.
The House speaker defended his stance anew Tuesday, insisting that he was just being honest in saying Trump had more work to do to show he could unify the party after alienating women, Hispanics and many conservatives.
“It is going to take more than a week to unify this party,” Ryan said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal broadcast online. “If we just pretend to unify without unifying, then we’ll only be at half-strength, and it won’t be good for us in the fall.”
Doubt and angst over Trump remained palpable as GOP lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill from a weeklong recess that saw him effectively clinch the nomination. For some, the question of whether they would back their party’s standard-bearer — a no-brainer in a normal election year — proved too much to answer.
“We’re not doing any Trump questions today,” an aide to Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois told reporters as Kirk, one of the most endangered Senate Republicans, sped into a meeting.
Another Republican who’s up for re-election, Tim Scott of South Carolina, offered his support, but like others managed to sound grudging and backhanded. “I’m supporting the Republican candidate, and it happens to be Donald Trump,” he said.