WASHINGTON -- Hopes of stopping Donald Trump short of the Republican nomination ahead of this summer's convention came to a crashing end Tuesday night after Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas dropped out of the race following his loss in Indiana.
What hope remains is being channeled into a Plan C: Have another Republican run for office in addition to Trump.
Around Washington, chatter about the possibility of an independent run by a traditional conservative is becoming louder. It is fueled in part by the business end of the political cycle: Campaign consultants eagerly await -- and financially plan for -- the quadrennial, billion-dollar payday that is a presidential election.
Rest assured, the Donald Trump campaign will offer no shortage of opportunities for grifters. But if you've been a charter member of the Washington establishment, your calls probably aren't getting returned as quickly as you might like, especially if you've spent the past half-year typing the #NeverTrump hashtag into your Twitter feed.
But there are also political reasons to run an independent candidate. A traditional conservative on the ballot who could peel a few points away from Trump would virtually assure Hillary Clinton of victory -- giving business-minded conservatives who prefer Clinton a way to support her without having to support her directly. As importantly, a third-party conservative candidate could potentially draw in Republican voters disaffected by having Trump on top of the ticket, thereby giving a much-needed boost to down-ballot candidates.
"That would be good," Tim Miller, Jeb Bush's former communications director and a leading operative in the Never Trump movement, said of guaranteeing Trump's loss by running someone else. "To the extent that there is a conservative third-party candidate that would give Republicans who can't stomach voting for Donald Trump a person to vote for, and conceivably solve the depressed turnout problem, I think there is something to be said to that."
Sam Geduldig, a former senior aide to John Boehner, is now a lobbyist, and argues that a Clinton victory is not necessarily a worst-case scenario for Republicans. "An independent conservative running could actually help the House and Senate," he said in an email. "It means Clinton definitely wins, so it could depress Democratic turnout in places like Illinois. So the Trump people help Mark Kirk, the [placeholder] people help Kirk, Democrats might not turn out because Clinton wins (Illinois) easily and we hold the Senate. Then in 2018 there'll likely be a wave of anti-Hillary energy and we'll run up huge majorities in her first midterm. Leading to a favorable redistricting process in 2020."
But the real problem with launching a third-party candidate against Trump is not the uncertainty of the results, it's making it actually happen.
"There will certainly be some talk about it, especially for those who want a serious constitutional conservative to vote for," said Doug Heye, a former top aide to Eric Cantor. "The challenge is that there is a high barrier to entry to making that a reality."
Among the most obvious hurdles is finding a willing individual. That's because such a bid would be a kamikaze mission for the candidate's reputation. A large chunk of the Republican Party would instantaneously blame the candidate for costing it a chance of winning the White House (presuming they sincerely believe Trump has a shot). And the official party apparatuses would formally oppose what the candidate is doing. Only a candidate with no plans to ever win the White House in the future would make the bid.
"Anything less than a unified Republican is ultimately helping Hillary Clinton become president," said Sean Spicer, a top aide at the Republican National Committee, when asked about the third-party bid chatter.
Beyond that, a third-party candidate would be subjecting himself or herself to months of incoming fire from Trump, who isn't exactly known for treating his political opponents tenderly.
"Who is going to run? Who are they going to put up there?" asked John Feehery, a longtime Republican operative who recently encouraged the party to rally behind Trump despite his own reservations. "I think this is all inside the beltway bullshit chatter from a bunch of campaign consultants who are frustrated their guy didn't win. And I think it's all nonsense."
Even if the insurgents were able to recruit someone to run against Trump, that candidate would have to actually get on a ballot. For the purposes of helping House and Senate candidates and denying Trump the presidency, qualifying in certain swing states would do (though appearing on all 50 would make the bid look much more credible). But even then, signatures have to be gathered and deadlines met. A group of conservative donors was reportedly looking into ballot access for just such a purpose back in February. Republican sources in the know say the effort has tapered off in recent months.
Still, a sense of panic over the impact that Trump may have on the party, and the alarm over how he would act as a president, has kept the talk of running someone else firmly alive. A top fundraiser for the party pointed to Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) as a candidate who would uniquely benefit from seeing another presidential candidate in the race: giving moderate conservatives in the suburbs a reason to go to the polls while not overly offending the Trump die-hards in the middle of the state.
"I think in Pat's case, he is very concerned," the fundraiser said. "And I think he is concerned because he has to run across the state, including in so many areas where Trump won't run as well."
But the question inevitably turns to who would actually be willing to help out the Toomeys of the world and, as importantly, do it effectively. To date, several top Republican donors tell The Huffington Post that they've been privy to talks to try to recruit a candidate, only to be begged off.
"There is [currently] some chatter around General [James] Mattis," emailed one donor who has raised tens of millions of dollars for the party. "But I don't believe it comes together." (Mattis has said he's not interested.)
Other names floated have included Govs. Susana Martinez (New Mexico), Brian Sandoval (Nev.) and Nikki Haley (S.C.) -- popular Republicans of color who might help the party with the very voters Trump has driven away. But none have shown any willingness to enter the presidential fray, and they lack both the national name ID and personal wealth to make a run work.
Why do it? For a candidate with no future political ambitions, a sacrificial run would ingratiate them with an extremely high-net-worth set of Republicans, and could serve as a golden parachute from public life. Beyond that, there's little incentive. Unless you feel the higher calling, which some hope could draw Mitt Romney or former Sen. Tom Coburn back into the fray.
Other prospective third-party candidates are likely to support Clinton (former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg) and some long-shot Republicans will end up supporting Trump (think former House Speaker John Boehner).
“The only model for a third party bid would be Trump himself. That’s the joke of it. You need a megalomaniacal rich guy with existing fame," said John Podhoretz, the conservative columnist who has been vocally anti-Trump. "He is the classic third party candidate."
Michael Steele, the former RNC chairman, thinks Republicans can forget about it. "In the end I don’t believe it will happen,"he said in an email. "No one would get behind that person. Want proof? The Stop Trump 'Movement.'"