When he swore not to run as a third-party candidate, billionaire-turned-politician Donald Trump was reportedly promised a fair shake at the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
But it’s no secret that the Republican Party establishment has never loved Trump’s candidacy. And political insiders and Trump supporters have long waited for the other shoe to drop and for a smear campaign against Trump to begin.
And over the past several days, the GOP strategy has become clear. It intends to use low-level candidates as cannon fodder to attack Trump, allowing more significant players like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and neurosurgeon Ben Carson to take the high road and keep their hands as clean as possible.
The takedown campaign seems to have started in earnest last week when Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal — a one-time GOP establishment darling — went nuclear on Trump in a much-publicized speech. Jindal called Trump dangerous, a narcissist and an egomaniac. He also attempted to undermine Trump’s growing support among evangelicals by claiming that Trump has likely never read the Bible.
Some in the media dismissed Jindal’s attack as a desperate ploy to gain attention, but there seems to have been more at play. With his polling numbers in the low-single digits — and given a repeated inability to gain traction or raise cash — Jindal and his supporters must know he has no chance at victory. While the Republican Party mainliners may benefit from attacks against Trump, Jindal doesn’t.
The same strategy was deployed just days later when former Texas Governor Rick Perry took parting shots at Trump while dropping out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination (again, a move with virtually no upside in terms of media exposure). Referring to Trump’s positions on immigration, Perry — like Jindal — also implied that Trump was not a Christian, nor worthy of the Christian vote.
And finally, it was announced last week that CNN would expand its September 16 debate to allow for former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina to appear on stage, even though she’s only polling at a little more than 2 percent. Fiorina, a hugely successful business leader and deal maker, has always been seen as a threat to Trump’s ability to portray himself as the sole business-savvy political outsider in the race.
Fiorina’s role in the debate seems to be to go hard after Trump — which she is expected to do. She’s also likely to embarrass Trump, particularly after he allegedly made comments that seemed to disparage her appearance.
Even though some top-tier Republican candidates have begun to slowly turn up the heat on Trump in recent weeks, their criticism has been mostly civilized. They’ve long been accused by confused GOP voters of pulling punches and trying to avoid dust-ups with Trump.
But now the strategy seems a bit clearer — the party will use lower-level candidates with nothing to lose to try to chip away at the Trump political machine. And in the process, it will try to keep its stars from suffering any lasting collateral damage.