Today, the GOP is divided and anxious, and as many of these same people gather with Romney once again, they now represent a party in exile, retreating to the political wilderness of Deer Valley and powerless in what has become the party of Donald Trump.
Romney was set to open his annual ideas festival here Thursday evening with the Republican Party newly riven by issues of race, following Trump’s accusations against a federal judge of Mexican heritage. The controversy has escalated concerns about Trump’s electability and the possible fallout from his candidacy on other GOP candidates.
Romney has been the most visible spokesman for the “Never Trump” movement. But the guest list includes both those hostile to Trump as well as some of his allies — including Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, some of Trump’s top fundraisers, and endorsers such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).
The Experts and Enthusiasts summit, or E2, is not a “Stop Trump” confab by design. Still, the gathering of mostly Republican business and political leaders is sure to showcase their desperation for a viable candidate other than Trump and serve as a reminder of the futility of their efforts so far to defeat him.
“I’m not interested in going and being part of a crowd and following,” said John Rakolta Jr. of Michigan, a national finance co-chairman of Romney’s campaigns who is not supporting Trump. “This is a time to really dig deep and have those debates about what direction we should be going in. I’m not looking for everybody agreeing.”
The E2 summit is the first of what will be many events in which Republican elites begin to talk and think about a post-Trump era, in the event that he loses to presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Many of the roughly 300 people assembling at the five-star Stein Eriksen Lodge Deer Valley for three days of colloquiums and seminars will be thinking about who might lead their party after November.
“I am not expecting we will sit by the campfire singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and group-hugging,” said GOP strategist Ana Navarro, a Trump critic. “Mitt Romney and other like-minded leaders can have a big influence on the reconstruction of the post-Trump Republican Party. We need to start those conversations now.”
The event comes amid chatter in some Republican circles about ways to establish party rules that could somehow deny Trump the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland next month. Those conversations underscore the continuing discomfort with Trump, yet have produced nothing concrete, either in terms of a clear strategy or a consensus alternative candidate.
Romney has steadfastly refused to run again, though the reunion here of his friends and allies is expected to produce some encouragement from well-wishers for him to reconsider, as it has the previous two years here.
“We’re at the point now where Mitt is the last dog in this fight who can run a credible third-party effort,” said Republican strategist Rick Wilson, who has tried, unsuccessfully so far, to draft a Trump alternative. “There will be tremendous pressure on him.”
John Weaver, another GOP strategist, predicted the Romney gathering will yield no credible solution to Trump. “Some of them will have chardonnay, some will have spring water, they’ll wring their hands, they’ll bemoan the state of the party and then they’ll leave,” he said.
The E2 summit is not intended to be a political forum, but rather is a Romney-designed version of the Aspen Ideas Festival.
“It’s never meant to be a presidential event,” said Spencer Zwick, a Romney confidant and finance chairman of his campaigns who helps run the event. “We created E2 to provide an opportunity for like-minded individuals to talk about ideas related to American leadership — in the business community, political sphere and public policy.”
Romney will deliver remarks in a closed-door session, and he has no plans to make public statements or give media interviews, his aides said. “He’s trying to not make this full of drama on purpose,” said Ron Kaufman, a Romney adviser and friend.
Some attendees said they will be watching carefully for how Romney and Ryan interact. The two have been close since running together on the GOP presidential ticket in 2012, but they split on the issue of Trump, with Romney vowing never to vote for him and Ryan offering his endorsement, though only after a period of awkward deliberation. The House speaker has since criticized Trump for his attack on the federal judge, Gonzalo Curiel, which he called the “textbook definition” of racism.
“That’s the $64,000 question,” said one attendee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending either man. “There’s the father figure and the mentee together with two very different viewpoints of what one ought to do in this election.”
Past and potentially future presidential candidates will be in attendance, among them Ryan; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who lost to Trump in this campaign; and two rising stars, Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Ben Sasse (Neb.). Sasse has been outspoken in his opposition to Trump, although he rebuffed entreaties from Romney, among others, to run this year as an independent.
Other GOP politicians scheduled to be here are Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and Reps. Trey Gowdy (S.C.) and Carlos Curbelo (Fla.). Also in attendance will be veterans of Romney’s campaigns, including strategist Stuart Stevens and fundraiser Meg Whitman, the Hewlett Packard Enterprise chief executive. Both are vocal Trump critics.
Also at the summit is John H. Sununu, a former New Hampshire governor and White House chief of staff, who is accompanied by one of his sons, Chris, a candidate for governor of New Hampshire.
Some donors in attendance are helping Trump raise money, including New York financier Anthony Scaramucci and California restaurant executive Andy Puzder. Another Trump fundraiser, New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, also has been planning to attend.
“Mitt’s a friend of mine,” Puzder said. “I think he would’ve made a great president. He’s one of the most decent men I know and he feels very strongly about Donald Trump. But I’ve said before that I would support Donald Trump if he were the nominee. He’s the nominee.”
A person familiar with the conference plans said that neither Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s campaign finance chairman, nor New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who spoke at last year’s E2 and is chairing Trump’s transition project, were invited to speak.
Priebus is expected to make the case for party unity and Ryan is prepared to provide more detail to attendees about his discussions with Trump over the past month and why he came to endorse him, according to a Republican who has been in touch with both men.
James A. Baker III, a Republican elder statesman and former secretary of state, and Leon E. Panetta, a former defense secretary under President Obama, were scheduled to address the opening dinner Thursday night. Organizers believe Panetta may make the case against Trump as a national security danger.
Zwick characterized the Romney loyalists in attendance as divided over Trump, with some steadfastly opposed and many more on the fence still.
“There’s a quiet majority in the middle who are not sure what to do,” he said. “Many of these donors feel free to support Hillary Clinton. They don’t represent anybody but themselves. They don’t feel an obligation to protect and promote the Republican Party.”
Rakolta said he looks forward to “intellectual tension” over the three days in Utah.
“The politics will be sort of a sideshow, because frankly that’s what it is,” Rakolta said. “The whole thing is a sideshow.”
Author: Philip Rucker and Dan Balz