The best line from any Trump stump speech this year is “Everyone wants Washington to change, and that means changing everyone in Washington.” No, wait — I’m mixed up. Trump didn’t say that. It was Tom Coburn, announcing his retirement from the Senate, who did. Coburn was raging against a corrupt establishment in D.C. back when Trump was still firing people on “The Apprentice.” Such was his despair at what he encountered in the capital that he spent the last few years calling for a convention of the states to fix Washington. He’s a perfect choice in many ways for #NeverTrumpers — conservative yet anti-establishment, experienced yet uncorrupted by his time in the Senate. I’ve never had an opportunity to vote for him, but I’d welcome it.
Would Coburn maximize the anti-Trump vote on the right as a third-party candidate, though? I’m not sure.
But should that effort falter, leading conservatives are prepared to field an independent candidate in the general election, to defend Republican principles and offer traditional conservatives an alternative to Mr. Trump’s hard-edged populism. They described their plans in interviews after Mr. Trump’s victories last Tuesday in Florida and three other states…
Among the recruits under discussion are Tom Coburn, a former Oklahoma senator who has told associates that he would be open to running, and Rick Perry, the former Texas governor who was suggested as a possible third-party candidate at a meeting of conservative activists on Thursday in Washington.
Mr. Coburn, who left the Senate early last year to receive treatment for cancer, said in an interview that Mr. Trump “needs to be stopped” and that he expected to back an independent candidate against him. He said he had little appetite for a campaign of his own, but did not flatly rule one out.
“I’m going to support that person,” Mr. Coburn said, “and I don’t expect that person to be me.”
The best thing about Coburn as the head of the Anti-Trump Party is that it’d be harder to demagogue him as an establishment pawn than it would most other independent challengers. If Romney jumped in, Trump would attack him as a last gasp by the mega-rich country-club set to blow up the GOP after We the People took it over. That doesn’t work with a soft-spoken Oklahoman like Coburn; he’d run as a populist himself, but one who thinks reform requires reducing federal power instead of putting Classier People in charge of it. He could and would critique the system with the jaundiced eye of someone who understands its failings from the inside. He’d do well enough at the presidential debates as a contrast with Trump, making the case against Washington yet sounding like he actually knows what he’s talking about, that he might move some conservative votes from Trump’s column to his. And he’d have a fair shot at winning his home state, which is worth seven electoral votes. (Oklahoma, remember, went for Cruz this year, not Trump.) That’s not much, but which states would Romney flip realistically? Utah? That’s worth just six.
Coburn’s problem is that he might not have enough of a soapbox to muscle in on the debate between Trump and Hillary. Conservative activists know and love him, but that’s a tiny niche. Coburn could jump in, enjoy a week of fanfare, and then slip off the radar for 98 percent of the country. That’s Romney’s key advantage: He has phenomenal name recognition from his 2012 run and he has a network of donors who could bankroll a semi-serious independent effort. He wouldn’t win, needless to say, but casual anti-Trump voters looking to park their votes somewhere are way more likely to hear about it if Romney jumps in than if Coburn does. Arguably Coburn’s also an inferior choice to Rick Perry, who enjoys a bit more name recognition thanks to two failed presidential runs. Perry’s problem is that casual voters may know him mainly as the guy who couldn’t remember the three agencies he wanted to get rid of during his 2012 campaign. He’d start out being viewed skeptically by casual anti-Trumpers, but a few strong media appearances early on could weaken that skepticism. Having backed Ted Cruz in the primaries, Perry might be rewarded by donations from Cruz’s Texas base of wealthy conservatives for his third-party bid. And Perry, probably more than any other independent challenger, could put Texas itself in play in the general election. Even if he didn’t win the state outright, which would be a tall order with Democrats unified behind Hillary and Republicans split between him and Trump, pulling just 20 percent of the vote there would likely turn the state blue, all but ending Trump’s chances. If the #NeverTrump challenge to Trump is a pure spoiler effort then Perry’s probably the best choice for that reason alone.
But it sounds like he’s not interested:
Jeff Miller was Perry’s presidential campaign manager last year. Is that a sincere Sherman statement or just a provisional one, to be revisited if/when Cruz loses Wisconsin in a few weeks and suddenly it really does look like Trump’s on his way to the nomination? No third-party aspirant wants to start making noise about running now when Cruz still has a shot to stop Trump in the primary, but if he underperforms in the next few primaries it might be time for righties to start thinking outside the box.