Ask Republicans in Congress these days whether they prefer Donald Trump or Ted Cruz and there is a good chance they will answer with a third name: Haley Barbour.
What does the former Republican National Committee chairman and power lobbyist who took a turn as Mississippi governor have to do with the 2016 presidential election? Embattled Senators and Congressmen are holding him up as Example A of how they’d like to see the 2016 election go, though that doesn’t mean they want him on the ticket. As RNC chief in 1996, Barbour bucked Bob Dole–ostensibly the head of the party as its White House nominee–and pulled funding from the presidential contest to funnel it to down-ballot races. Dole lost to Bill Clinton, but Republicans ended up gaining two seats in the Senate and maintaining a majority in the House.
More than a few senior Republicans who see both Trump and Cruz as kryptonite in purple states with tough elections this year would be delighted to settle for such an outcome again. “It’s more than O.K.,” said Tony Fratto, a top Treasury official and White House aide to President George W. Bush. “No one is happy that Hillary Clinton is going to be President, but there are worse things.”
The current Republican Party chair, Reince Priebus, has told both Trump and Cruz that he will maintain personal control of the $126 million that donors have given him to spend as he sees fit. Conservative patrons and the outside groups they fund, meanwhile, are signaling that they have thrown in the towel on the presidential race and are looking at other races.
The network of groups backed by billionaires Charles and David Koch, for example, plans to spend about $889 million before Election Day, roughly two-thirds of it on trying to drive how voters cast their ballots. But neither Trump nor Cruz will see much of that cash. “We will not get involved in a presidential election that descends into mudslinging and personal attacks while ignoring the critical issues facing our nation,” says James Davis, a spokesman for the Kochs’ umbrella group. Instead, that cash is going to help Republicans like Senator Rob Portman of Ohio; Freedom Partners Action Fund recently spent $2 million on a TV ad for him.
Portman is following national Republicans’ advice carefully, running a hyperlocal campaign without betting on the nominee’s coattails. “We’re running our race,” campaign manager Corry Bliss said. “Hoping to be dragged across the finish line is not a strategy.” Similarly, New Hampshire Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte has been relentless in defending her state’s military bases and contractors; she says she won’t endorse in this GOP primary cycle and is likely to skip the convention in Cleveland altogether. Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson would not even tell voters whom he supported before his state’s primary. Some members of Congress have even been scrambling to avoid getting named as convention delegates, while North Carolina Senator Richard Burr plans to join Ayotte in skipping Cleveland to tend to his race back home.
Even Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, who some hoped would emerge as a white knight from a contested convention, has decided to focus on keeping his own House in order. “Let me be clear: I do not want, nor will I accept, the nomination for our party,” Ryan told reporters on April 12, ahead of a trip to New York City to meet with some of the party’s most generous donors.
That leaves the GOP down on its luck. Polls show that Trump remains underwater with key constituencies in the general election, with 73% of female voters telling pollsters for CNN that they have a negative view of him. The same goes for Latinos (85%), African Americans (80%) and young voters (80%). These groups view Cruz as slightly better, although he still loses to Hillary Clinton in most head-to-head surveys.
Democrats are looking down ballot as well, with seven Senate Republican seats rated as either toss-ups or leaning Democratic, and at least 14 House GOP seats–about half the number Democrats would need to take the majority–are up for grabs. “If the wave is huge and brings in all of the surfboards, we have the margins,” says a House Democratic strategist. “But it’s hard to predict the size of the November wave when we’re in April.”
This appears in the April 25, 2016 issue of TIME.