While Florida Sen. Marco Rubio seemed ready to claim the mainstream lane of the Republican presidential race Monday night, the GOP establishment vote likely won’t be locked down until at least one more state holds its nominating contest.
The Florida senator has seen an increase in support from mainstream donors and elected officials in recent weeks, but GOP strategists and early state party members said they expect the establishment wing of the Republican Party to hold off on choosing a candidate until the New Hampshire primary, which is likely to force several moderate candidates to drop out naturally. If the Granite State contest does not winnow the field as expected, then the Republican establishment will likely resort to behind-the-scenes discussions and financial pressure to help unite around a candidate soon after.
But Rubio likely needs the continued momentum of another top primary finish for party elites to anoint him as their choice. After all, the establishment has been hoping he will do well for months, and it needs something to build on.
“A lot of this is going to fall on the shoulders on Marco Rubio,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who worked for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid. “What will happen is if Rubio does well in New Hampshire, in terms of folks like Bush, Kasich, they will feel a pressure to drop out.”
“There will be whispers in the party, in the media,” O’Connell said, referring to pressure for candidates to suspend their campaigns. “That may well occur after New Hampshire, particularly if some candidates don’t do as well.”
That kind of pressure must be handled delicately, though. “Trying to tell the candidate straight up is not the best option. It has to come from someone who you respect or a group of people who you respect,” O’Connell added.
Even for someone like Bush with cash to burn, donors will not stick around forever. O’Connell, the Republican strategist, said big donors are often the ones pushing their candidate to suspend the campaign. These pushes can come from the donor’s own self-interest, or as pressure from friends who are donors to succeeding candidates.