At this point in the primary race, nothing short of a meteor strike on Trump Tower could stop Donald Trump from becoming the Republican nominee. But that doesn't mean the end of the Never Trump movement. A circle of Republican elites who are still in the "denial" stage of the grieving process have moved past the primary and are trying to draft a third party candidate for the general election.
Conservative operatives have been quietly working over the past two weeks to find a Republican willing to step up to the plate. These GOP insiders include 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the prominent conservative pundits Bill Kristol and Erick Erickson, as well as veteran Republican strategists Rick Wilson, Mike Murphy, and Stuart Stevens, according to the Washington Post.
Although conventional political wisdom makes the odds of a third-party outsider becoming president extremely slim, a pathway for such a scenario technically exists. According to the 12th Amendment of the Constitution, such a candidate would need to deny Clinton and Trump the requisite 270 electoral votes in the general election by winning several pivotal states.
If a third-party candidate appears on the ballot anywhere it will likely be in New Hampshire, Ohio, and Colorado — purple states with relatively lenient rules for getting on the ballot in time for Election Day. The decision would then go from the Electoral College to the House of Representatives, where each state delegation would be afforded one vote. Since the House is currently controlled by Republicans, the Never Trump crew hopes there could be a shot for an establishment Republican candidate to win.
Though this is a long-shot plan, it's not impossible: the last time it happened was in 1824, when the House chose John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson, despite Jackson winning the popular vote.
It's nevertheless exceedingly risky. If the effort fails, it could harm the Republicans in many of the down-ballot races and end up costing the GOP majorities in both the House and the Senate. Even if the plan somehow works, it would allow Trump supporters to argue that the political establishment had stolen the nomination from their candidate, inflaming voters who already believe the system is rigged and possibly alienating them from the party permanently.
The Never Trump effort is further undercut as more and more of the Republican Party comes to terms with the reality that Trump is the GOP's new standard-bearer. For the first time in the primary, a majority of Republican voters now support him, according to a recent NBC poll. An increasing number of GOP elected officials are also falling in line behind Trump, including figures such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, who met with him in DC last week.
Reince Priebus, the chair of the Republican National Committee, made his opposition to a third-party challenger to Trump clear on Sunday.
"They can try to hijack another party and get on the ballot, but look, it's a suicide mission for our country," Priebus said on Fox News, "because what it means is that you're throwing down not just eight years of the White House but potentially 100 years on the Supreme Court and wrecking this country for many generations."
Freshman Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse is said to be at the top of the list of possible third-party challengers to Trump. He has earned widespread attention in recent months for being one of the most outspoken anti-Trump Republicans, having remarked that there are "dumpster fires" more appealing than the choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Romney has reportedly approached Sasse about a third-party run, but Sasse has said publicly that he is not interested in running. Despite appearing to be an obvious choice — Sasse is considered a rising star in the Republican Party and has said a third-party candidate would be a better option — such a risky move would jeopardize his valuable Senate seat and could effectively ruin his career.
Romney has also reportedly courted John Kasich, who dropped out of the race last month after failing to win a single primary state besides his own. Kasich's position as a moderate, soft-spoken Republican who has been able to work with Democrats in the past make him an appealing option. But he has also repeatedly said that he has no interest in running as a third-party candidate.
Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, is also said to be an outsider alternative to Trump, but he told the Post that he doesn't see that happening.
"There isn't enough time," Cuban said.
Other options on the anyone-but-Trump list include former Republican Senator Tom Coburn, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and retired Army General Stanley McChrystal.
The mere possibility of a third-party candidate has provoked vitriolic criticism from some conservatives who see it as destructive to the GOP. The pro-Trump website Breitbart called Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, a "Republican spoiler" and "renegade Jew" for daring to endorse an independent candidate.
The risk of splitting the Republican vote, "is a political miscalculation so great and a betrayal so profound as to not be easily forgiven," Breitbart contributor David Horowitz wrote on Sunday.
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @oliviaLbecker