By Scott Wong and Amie Parnes - 08-11-16 06:02 AM EDT
Gloom is setting in for GOP lawmakers and strategists who increasingly think Donald Trump will lose the presidential race, and their party will be left in the political wilderness.
"I'm not feeling great about the immediate future of the conservative movement right now," said one southern lawmaker, a Trump supporter. "As a conservative who believes our ideas are good for America, it is pretty gloomy these days."
A handful of House GOP lawmakers say they are already bracing for what could be a lopsided Trump defeat this fall.
"It's an uphill battle," acknowledged retiring Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), who first endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), then Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and finally Trump after he won the nomination.
"I think it will be Hillary," predicted a northeastern House GOP lawmaker who is publicly backing Trump.
"If I had to bet, I'd definitely bet that Trump loses," said another House GOP lawmaker who is opposed to Trump. "This is like a football game where you hate both teams. You root for a tie - and maybe some minor injuries."
The southern GOP lawmaker said he's always believed Trump was a "long shot" due to the demographics of the race. Clinton is trying to build a broad coalition of women, minority, LGBT and youth voters; Trump is appealing to white, working-class voters.
"There was some hope that the disaffected, so-called silent majority would be broad enough and turn out in large enough numbers to give Trump a chance," said the lawmaker. "But if he continues the next 90 days like the last week, then he will lose big time."
Since his convention in Cleveland, Trump has struggled to get on message for the general election, contending with near-daily defections from establishment Republicans who say the Manhattan billionaire is so dangerous they will either vote for Clinton or write-in someone else's name.
Both Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) and Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman said they would back Clinton.
Centrist Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Monday that Trump lacks both "historical Republican values" and an inclusive approach required of a party leader. She isn't backing Clinton, however.
Chatter about a Trump rout in November has already emerged in some super PAC circles. The New York Times recently reported that some party strategists have begun privately discussing campaign ads that would assume Trump loses in the fall and ask voters to back congressional Republicans as a last line of defense against a Clinton White House.
Some Republicans see a silver lining to a Trump defeat.
If Hillary Clinton wins, they think their bruised and fractured party will have time to reflect, regroup and rebuild against a common enemy in a new Clinton administration.
By 2020, the GOP could be in a good position to take back the White House.
"Another autopsy will occur and the next time I hope lessons will be learned," said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), vocal Trump critic. He was citing the GOP's autopsy report after the 2012 presidential election that urged the party to be more inclusive.
But even more Republicans say they're pessimistic for the conservative movement.
Republicans won't be able to immediately turn to an obvious standard bearer in 2020, like Democrats had in Clinton this cycle. That could mean another crowded, fractured GOP field in four years featuring candidates like Rubio, Cruz, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and possibly Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
Also, the fault lines that divided the party this cycle - populist outsiders vs. the GOP establishment - will still exist after November, the southern lawmaker said. And the groups that foment or "profit from" intraparty division, including the Freedom Caucus, Club for Growth and Heritage Action, will still be around long after Trump, the source said.
Tim Miller, a former communications director to Jeb Bush's presidential campaign who helped create the Never Trump movement, said that while Republicans could conceivably unite in opposition to Clinton, that won't fix the party's long-term problems.
"That will help with some of the healing but it will not fix some of the long-term wounds that have been shown to divide this party," Miller said. "Clinton will in some ways continue to exacerbate some of the worst impulses and conspiracy theories which got us Trump in the first place rather than a thorough, credible critique of her.
Miller also argued that a Trump defeat might not end his influence within the GOP.
"I think that there are a lot of people within the party that think that he's a black swan and a one time event that won't have long term repercussions following a defeat in November and I completely reject that," Miller added. "He's not going anywhere."
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, who hasn't endorsed Trump, pointed out the obvious: The GOP was supposed to come together in Cleveland, not after Clinton wins the White House.
"No one can forecast how the Republican Party will come back together," he said. "Republican leaders will have to figure out an agenda that focuses on their problems and until that happens, there will be a huge splinter in the ranks."
Susan MacManus, a longtime political science professor at the University of South Florida, agreed, arguing that the schisms in the party are actually widening.
"I don't think it's going to be easy to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, particularly as the millennials go in their own direction," MacManus said. "Too many Republicans are frustrated by the establishment and believe that Trump is 'the last hope' to shake up Washington.
"The divisions are too deep and the issues are too tied to people's lives," she added