Former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) would be a unifying figure for conservatives, but his health is in question after a battle with cancer.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who helped kick off the push for a third-party pro-Constitution candidate in February, has taken himself out of the running, citing obligations to his family.
“The answer is no. Senator Sasse has been clear when asked this before: he has three little kids and the only callings he wants — raising them and serving Nebraskans,” said his spokesman James Wegmann.
The names of Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) and former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) had both been mentioned, but they removed themselves from consideration by announcing they will support Trump.
Two other potential candidates — Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who is expected to win the Libertarian Party’s nomination for president later this year — are non-starters with the conservatives who are involved in discussions about a third-party candidate.
Erick Erickson, the conservative writer and radio host who has organized conference calls about a Trump alternative, said the movement wants a new face, which is not Romney.
“His name has been floated by three separate groups and all of them came to the conclusion that a new face was needed,” he said.
But Erickson added, “I do think it’s possible” for conservatives to rally behind someone.
“Given the antipathy for Trump and Hillary [Clinton], you could put together a compelling ticket that would unite conservatives and the more establishment Republicans and probably pick up some independents along the way,” he said.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) rocked Republican circles on Thursday afternoon when he announced he will not back Trump, at least for now, giving conservatives valuable time to field another option.
Romney and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who both ran against for president, said this week there’s no chance they will vote for Trump, adding to the growing chorus of holdouts within the party establishment.
Romney allies interviewed by The Hill said they are frustrated by the choices before them, but aren’t pushing for him to enter the race.
They believe a third-party or independent bid would be a near impossible for anyone to pull off, and don’t want to see Romney drained of all his political capital over a doomed effort in which he might be blamed for handing the election over to Clinton.
“I don’t want to see him get in unless there was a chance he could win,” one former Romney adviser said. “There’s enormous dissatisfaction with both major party candidates, but it’s too steep a climb. Is there an opening? Sure. Is it realistic? I don’t think so.”
Other conservatives say Johnson, an early advocate of legalizing marijuana who told The Daily Caller he consumed cannabis within the last several weeks, “is a bridge too far to cross.”
Many establishment Republicans and conservatives view Johnson as a fringe figure.
“He might be an outlet for some protest votes, but if your concern with Donald Trump is that he’s not presidential enough, I’m not sure why Gary Johnson would be your guy,” said Ryan Williams, a veteran of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign.
“I don’t think Gary Johnson was discussed more than three seconds,” said Deborah DeMoss Fonseca, a spokeswoman for the conservatives looking for a Trump alternative.
“The question is, ‘What are our options?’ and that is what is still being discussed and that takes hours and hours and hours,” DeMoss Fonseca added. “We’re working with different groups of people that have different expertise.”
Organizers of the third-party, conservative push estimate it will cost at least $250 million to fund a candidate, and possibly tens or hundreds of millions of dollars more.
The other challenge is navigating the complex rules for getting a presidential candidate on the ballot in all 50 states.
The fundraising and ballot requirements are two major reasons why former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has presidential ambitions and billions of dollars in personal wealth, thought he needed to make a decision about running for the White House by the end of March. He ultimately passed on it.
Conservatives involved in the search for a Trump alternative describe their discussions as decentralized, with various groups holding conference calls and conducting fact-finding missions.
In addition to Erickson and DeMoss Fonseca, other participants include Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, Bill Wichterman, a former aide for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) who is well-connected among social conservatives, and Bob Fischer, a South Dakota businessman and longtime activist.
They hope that Paul Singer, the billionaire hedge fund manager who helped bankroll the “Never Trump” campaign before Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) dropped out of the presidential race, can be enticed to back a third-party option in the fall. Calls and e-mails to Singer’s office were not returned.
Charles and David Koch, the billionaire industrialists who have funded other conservative causes, are viewed as another potential source of the money. But it will take some cajoling to get them on board.
James Davis, a spokesman for Freedom Partners, the umbrella political group funded by the Kochs, told The Hill that it’s not considering supporting a third-party candidate.
David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party’s ticket in 1980, which received only 1 percent of the vote.
“There’s a lot of activity between us and a lot of phone calls and emails about who to contact. We’re still reaching out to financial people as well as to people to see if there’s a widespread for a third candidate,” said DeMoss Fonseca. “Six months ago all of us would have said, ‘That’s silly, that’s ridiculous.’
“We want to do something that’s effective and credible,” she added. “For the first time in our lifetimes there are a lot of people and a lot of big Republicans are saying, ‘We can do this but is it too late? Is there still a pathway?’ ”
But other Republican voices in the Never Trump movement are beginning to doubt the viability of a third candidate.
Operatives from the two leading anti-Trump super-PACs did not participate in the recent conference calls.
Katie Packer, a former senior adviser to Mitt Romney who runs the main anti-Trump group, Our Principles PAC, said her group is turning its focus from the presidential race to protecting GOP majorities in the House and the Senate.
“Looking at the data, we’re very worried about incumbent Republicans getting caught up in a flood,” she said. “The first thing we’re looking at is what can be done for down-ballot Republicans. We don’t have any plans to actively oppose Trump in the general election … but we continue to believe he’s terrible for the party, the country, and especially down-ballot Republicans, so we’re looking for opportunities to help them.”
An operative for the Never Trump PAC, a smaller group that has so far focused primarily on digital ad buys, told The Hill they’re also not engaging in the effort to recruit an alternative, but said they might get on board if the right candidate materializes.