GOP Big Shots Hedge On Donald Trump At The Kentucky Derby

At Churchill Downs, the Republican rich and powerful had very little good to say about their new standard-bearer, but none would publicly break with him.
Jamie Rhodes/USA Today Sports via Reuters

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A Wall Street guy in a Panama hat sidled up to me in the mint julep line in a sky box at Churchill Downs on Saturday to tell me he was afraid: afraid of what Donald Trump had done and could do to the Republican Party, the American economy, the body politic and the world.

“Everybody in New York knows that he is a deadbeat bullshit artist who doesn’t pay his bills, who sues everybody, who gets sued all the time, who weasels out of deals,” said the man, his face flushed as he waited for his drink.

“But I went to a presentation a few months ago by one of Jeb Bush’s pollsters, and he said that if a presidential candidate loses nationally by more than seven points, that that can ruin our chances of holding the House and Senate.

“So I figure I have to be for Trump. I don’t want a wave that drowns us.”

I pointed out to him that it was also was possible that the bigger the Trump profile, the worse it might be for the GOP “down ballot” candidates. That is what a lot of party pros think as they prepare to help everyone BUT Trump.

“Well, I’m a numbers guy,” he said. “I’m going with my theory. I might consider voting for a Democrat but I can’t stand Hillary.”

Jamie Rhodes/USA Today Sports via Reuters

I asked him why. He hesitated. I think I knew what he wanted to say: that he considered Hillary Clinton to be a screechy, hectoring female, like the early wives of the rich guys visiting Louisville who’d finally found a good woman -- agreeable, quiet -- in Palm Beach.

He didn’t say that, though. Women were in line, and just because they wore weird big hats didn’t mean that they couldn’t be offended by a loud guy from New York.

Finally he answered.

“I guess I don’t like her because I KNOW she will raise my taxes,” he said. “I’m not sure Trump will. So, yes, that’s it.”

“I figure I have to be for Trump. I don’t want a wave that drowns us.”

I spent a happy four days last week in Louisville, where I began my reporting career years ago and where I maintain close ties that get me invited back for Derby.

I was the guest of U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth (D) of Louisville, a friend of 40 years who, in our early days, was a Republican and friend of a fellow young Republican named Mitch McConnell.

I spoke to a score of prominent GOP people in office, in corporate positions, in the role of donors or captains of industry. Few would talk on the record, but the bottom line was clear.

Most (not all) were wary or ashamed of Donald Trump's rise. But their objections weren’t moral -- and did not include the list that we at The Huffington Post run as a disclaimer at the bottom of each and every Trump story we write.

With these people it is all transactional: Trump was an unpleasant problem to work around or endure, not something to publicly denounce or publicly renounce the way the Bush Family had done. “That was classless,” one GOP insider told me.

Trump was the crazy uncle in the basement of racism and fear that is the foundation of the modern GOP.

Party leaders here know they have to expand that vision, but they don’t quite know how or perhaps have the will to do so. In the meantime, Trump barged in with a naked version of the old appeal and he won most of the voters.

“We have to change,” said one GOP leader. “We all know that what the party said in that report after 2012 is correct -- that we have to do more to modernize and grow our reach."

“But those pesky voters said otherwise,” he said, not sounding entirely upset.

“The Republican Party has survived Herbert Hoover and Barry Goldwater,” this person told me. “And we’ll survive Trump.”

That most people I spoke with did not want to be named is itself a sign of how Republicans are cautiously trying to survive Trump.

The mogul was not utterly without his forthright supporters on Millionaires Row. One of them was Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.), a bull-necked, affable fellow who had a giant unlit cigar jutting up out of his shirt pocket as we talked.

Long, a conservative from the most conservative part of Missouri (the southwest), was a radio talk show host and is well known as a top Las Vegas level poker player.

As a candidate, Long had been advised by Jeff Roe, who had gone on to run Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) campaign for the nomination this year.

Despite that tie, Long told me that Republicans were fools if they did not back Trump to the hilt.

“He kicked everybody’s butt, won far more votes, and we can WIN with him,” he said. “Voters are fed up with Washington, with politics as usual. If we can get all the men up off the couch and get them to actually vote we can win.”

“He kicked everybody’s butt, won far more votes, and we can WIN with him. If we can get all the men up off the couch and get them to actually vote, we can win.”

- Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.)

But both in on-the-record volubility and ground-level optimism, Long was the exception at the tables of the Row.

“We need to do what we were going to do anyway,” said an elected official, “which is to concentrate on the House and the Senate. Obama helped us a lot in 2010 because of Obamacare and we got the kind of redistricting we needed so that we can hold the House even with Trump on the ticket.

“On the Senate side, they’ll do what they were going to do anyway, which is to focus on the six or seven swing seats and put all of the money and effort was can into those.”

A businessman who knows Paul Ryan well said that he expected the speaker eventually to endorse Trump, after he and Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, played good cop/bad cop with the Donald on things.

“Mitch is totally pragmatic,” said one of his admirers on the Row. “He’ll go about his business. If Trump winds up president, Mitch will be able to deal with him.”

McConnell himself has said that, indeed, he would support Trump. What form that takes remains to be seen.

Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.

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