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‘Never Means Never’: A ‘Never Trump’ Republican on Where the Movement Goes Next

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Sarah Longwell is the type of Republican who held onto hope as long as she could. In 2016, the K Street pro successfully kept the Log Cabin Republicans from endorsing Donald Trump’s candidacy, denying the nominee the backing of the nation’s largest LGBTQ organization for conservatives. For weeks, Longwell and her fellow board members heard from state chapters, donors, activists, and the Republican Party’s small-but-vocal cadre of insider elites. They all made the persuasive case that a non-endorsement of the GOP nominee was a tacit backing for Hillary Clinton. Ultimately, amid uncertainty about what—if anything—Trump believed on gay rights, the Log Cabin Republicans held their fire.

When Trump started to run his re-election three years later, though, Longwell and her like-minded institutionalists could not stop the march. The Log Cabin Republicans reversed course and endorsed Trump for a second term despite a record that was marked with indifference to discrimination and hostility toward trans individuals in particular. In turn, several board members—including Longwell, whose conservative credentials are not really in doubt given her time working for Sen. Rick Santorum—left the organization, along with its executive director. Longwell soon became one of the country’s most visible and outspoken NeverTrumpers, after helping launch Defending Democracy Together and its Republican Voters Against Trump project. It was lonely work, but Longwell held out hope that her longtime view of the conservative movement in the United States would come back to equilibrium with her steady hand.

That optimism is now gone. “The fever is not going to break,” Longwell told me ahead of Super Tuesday’s polls closing in 15 states for Republican voters. “The voters are not interested in it breaking. We are never going back.”

For Longwell and similar committed "Never Trumpers," Nikki Haley was their final hope. But as Trump was on track to rout his last remaining GOP rival from California to Maine Tuesday night, Haley’s raison d'être just became a whole lot less tenable. The former South Carolina governor has no television ads scheduled after Tuesday or campaign stops on the books. As her zombie campaign fades further into background noise, Trump critics like Longwell are getting more pressure to fall in line behind the GOP standard-bearer.

Put plainly: you’re either a Republican or a "Never Trumper." You can’t be both.

For Longwell, the choice is an easy one. If it’s down to Trump and Biden, she will be casting a vote for the Democratic incumbent.

“When people say the NeverTrumpers have to pick a side, they’re missing a big part,” says Longwell. “I will support anyone against Trump. Never means never.”

Listen: The "Person of the Week" podcast talks with Sarah Longwell

Many Republicans now find themselves at a similar crossroads. Some may not be as resolute as Longwell. The idea of voting for a Democrat for President, even when the alternative is Trump, makes them skittish. Political partisanship has become as innate as DNA, and switching stripes can feel like a betrayal of self-identity. Trump may be a deviation from party orthodoxy, but denying the party altogether for many can seem like a dereliction that cannot be forgotten.

Haley’s most vocal supporters insist she can still deny Trump the delegates he needs. Realistically, the math is almost impossible, as the calendar is about to get a lot more brutal and the rules start to conspire even more aggressively against upstarts. Even with her win in Washington, D.C., over the weekend, the delegate math decides the pace this race wraps up more than anything the voters do.

Things just seem to be breaking in Trump’s favor. The Supreme Court a day ahead of Super Tuesday ruled states couldn’t keep Trump off ballots over his role on Jan. 6, 2021. And it seems more likely by the day that the most serious legal threat to Trump’s viability will slip beyond the GOP’s July nominating convention and perhaps into the fall—or beyond. The most proximate courtroom drama is one honed on Trump’s hush-money payments to an adult film star, arguably the least impactful in voters’ minds.

That’s not to say Trump is on a glidepath to victory. Roughly one-in-three voters so far have said that Trump would not be fit to be President if he’s convicted of a crime, according to exit polls, but it’s not clear fibbing about a relationship with a porn star is truly disqualifying, even if a jury decides it amounted to election interference. Tellingly, 59% of Haley’s voters in South Carolina said they would not vote for Trump in November if he’s the nominee.

Trump has told Haley supporters and donors that he doesn’t want their backing, instead preferring party purity over coalition building. It’s a tactic popular in the MAGAverse; Kari Lake said during her high-voltage bid for Arizona governor that she would not welcome support from the John McCain wing of the GOP. Lake is currently running for Senate instead of sitting in the Governor’s Office, and it’s pretty clear that  her misreading of the late Maverick’s legacy is a big reason why.

The number of Haley supporters who refuse to convert to Trumpism may be surprisingly strong if Haley denies Trump her endorsement, as she has recently suggested she might. After all, she has already gone on the record with some of the most brutal critiques of her former boss. Even if much of that group doesn’t go so far as voting for Biden, a decision to stay home is still bad for the GOP.

“If somebody who has voted for Trump two times then if they don’t vote for him, that’s still a net negative in his column,” Longwell says. “In an ideal world, they’d vote for a Republican. They don’t have a Republican who is acceptable.”

And that’s where Haley’s exit could really matter for not just Trump but also Biden. Haley still sees herself as having a future in the Republican Party, and she might not be seeing mirages. There’s long been the credible case that the nation’s first female President would come from a Republican Party that figures out how to crack the code with suburban moms and college-educated professionals. How Haley navigates her next steps could be pivotal.

“I’ve been disappointed with Nikki Haley for the last few years. Her running this cycle, she’s come to understand the Republican Party she joined is not the Republican Party today,” Longwell says. But she is hardly alone in this truth, and plenty of those voters who are holding out hope about Haley were disaffected Republicans in 2020 who ultimately backed Biden. “There’s a chunk of Nikki Haley voters who have already voted for Joe Biden,” she says.

Still, it’s going to take some time to deal with the reckoning afoot, one that in 2016 and again in this current cycle claimed plenty of rising political talent. Governors, Senators, diplomats, and activists alike have all been felled by the mercurial MAGA bullies and its chief ringleader. “This is not the Republican Party they joined,” Longwell laments.

Nor is it the one where Longwell started her career—or wants it to end.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.