Anti-Trump Republicans are scrambling to recruit third-party candidate

Must Read: Third party peril

Now that Donald Trump is the last man standing in the Republican presidential race, his critics in the party are intensifying their search for a candidate they could back as a serious third-party alternative.

Political operatives are courting donors, calling potential candidates and developing legal contingency plans for overcoming onerous ballot qualification laws.

SEE ALSO: Former rival 'not interested' in being Trump's running mate

"This is as much as anything a battle for the future of American party politics," said Republican strategist Joel Searby, who is working with conservative writer Bill Kristol, among others, to identify a third-party candidate for the Nov. 8 presidential election.

The group Conservatives Against Trump, which includes blogger Erick Erickson, has been holding calls and meetings to discuss third-party candidates as well as other options to stop the New York billionaire from winning the White House.

The hurdles for a third-party candidacy are high. No independent candidate has ever won a presidential election, although some have played spoilers. But the efforts by the Republican groups underscore the unusual divisiveness of Trump's candidacy within Republican ranks ahead of a likely general election fight with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

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Anti-Trump Republicans are scrambling to recruit third-party candidate
A U.S. President Donald Trump supporter holds up a sign at a protest to support immigration activist Ravi Ragbir across the street from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices building in New York, U.S. March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Demonstrators protest at the beach in support of U.S. President Donald Trump during a rally in Huntington Beach, California, U.S., March 25, 2017. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
Demonstrators send off white doves from the beach as they protest in support of U.S. President Donald Trump during a rally in Hunginton Beach, California, U.S., March 25, 2017. REUTERS/Patrick Fallon
A masked supporter dances before Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives at a campaign town hall event in Wausau, Wisconsin April 2, 2016. REUTERS/Ben Brewer
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets supporters at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Supporters cheer for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
People say the pledge of allegiance before listening to U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speak at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Supporters wait for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to speak at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Supporters cheer for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as he speaks at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Supporters (L-R) Annalisa Wales, 12, Scarlett Wales, 9, Barbara Wales, 68, and Katherine Wales, 10, wait for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to speak at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Supporters cheer for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets supporters at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets supporters at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets supporters at a campaign rally in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
People listen to U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speak at a campaign rally in Sacramento, California, U.S. June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
A man carries a sign for Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally to highlight POW-MIA issues on Memorial Day weekend in Washington, U.S. May 29, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
People watch Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump address the Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally to highlight POW-MIA issues on Memorial Day weekend in Washington, U.S. May 29, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Supporters attend a rally with Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump in San Diego, California, U.S. May 27, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Marcos Spence solicits volunteers to work for the campaign of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump as they stand in line before the start of his rally in Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S. May 24, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
A supporter holds a sign as Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a rally in Anaheim, California, U.S. May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Supporters line up to enter a convention center where U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Anaheim, California, United States May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Supporters of Republican U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump arrive before Trump speaks at a campaign event in Anaheim, California U.S. May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A supporter of Republican U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a sign before Trump speaks at a campaign event in Anaheim, California U.S. May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Supporters of Republican U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump arrive before Trump speaks at a campaign event in Anaheim, California U.S. May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Supporters of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump stand in line before the start of his rally in Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S. May 24, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
A supporter of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump attends a Trump campaign rally at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire, February 8, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
A supporter of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump wearing a "Trump for President '16" t-shirt listens to the candidate speak at a campaign rally at the airport in Hagerstown, Maryland, U.S. On April 24, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Bourg/File Photo
Activists of Hindu Sena, a Hindu right-wing group, perform a special prayer to ensure a victory of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump in the upcoming elections, according to a media release, in New Delhi, India May 11, 2016. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee
Supporters hold signs as Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Lynden, Washington, U.S., May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
Supporters cheer as Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Lynden, Washington, U.S., May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
Supporters hold signs as Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Lynden, Washington, U.S., May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
Delegate Douglas Marshall in the Donald Trump booth during the second day of the Republican Party of Texas state convention on May 13, 2016 in Dallas. (Paul Moseley/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images)
A supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a sign during a campaign event at Grumman Studios in Bethpage, New York April 6, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
A supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump takes a photo during a campaign event at Grumman Studios in Bethpage, New York April 6, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump supporters Josh (R), and his father Jeff Schimek (L), wait for him to speaks during a Town Hall at the Racine Civic Centre Memorial Hall April 2, 2016. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE
Supporters (L) of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump point and scream at an anti-Trump demonstrator (R) holding a sign reading "More Like Make America Racist Again" sign during a Trump campaign rally in Fountain Hills, Arizona March 19, 2016. REUTERS/Ricardo Arduengo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends a campaign rally in De Pere, Wisconsin, United States, March 30, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Bob Bolus, a supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, gives the thumbs up to drivers as they pass by on Super Tuesday in Middleburg Heights, Ohio March 15, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk
Rosemary Harder wears a hat supporting Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump during a news conference, after the Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Illinois and Missouri primary elections, held at his Mar-A-Lago Club, in Palm Beach, Florida March 15, 2016. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
Supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump Alex Stypik joins Trump (L) on stage at a campaign rally in Bloomington, Illinois March 13, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
A Trump supporter (R) yells at a demonstrator (L) after Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump cancelled his rally at the University of Illinois at Chicago March 11, 2016. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Supporters of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump cheer on their candidate at a Trump campaign rally in New Orleans, Louisiana March 4, 2016. REUTERS/Layne Murdoch Jr.
A supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends a campaign rally in Cadillac, Michigan, March 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
A supporter of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump holds up a sign at a campaign rally at Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Georgia February 29, 2016. REUTERS/ Philip Sears
A supporter of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump celebrates with a cigar at Trump's 2016 South Carolina presidential primary night rally in Spartanburg, South Carolina February 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
A campaign volunteer for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wears a hat signed by Trump during a rally with supporters in Gaffney, South Carolina February 18, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Freda Green, of Louisiana, wears a hat in support of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump before a rally in Baton Rouge, Louisiana February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
A veteran of both the Korean and the Vietnam War, C.J. Dauzt wears a sticker in support of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump before a rally in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in Baton Rouge, Louisiana February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
10-year-old Ian Linden, of New Orleans, holds a sign in support of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump before a rally in Baton Rouge, Louisiana February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
Supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wait for the start of his campaign rally in Plymouth, New Hampshire February 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Anne-Sophie Marquis cradles her doll Clare, wearing a button supporting U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, at a Trump campaign rally in Plymouth, New Hampshire February 7, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Young supporters of Republican U.S. presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump wait for Trump to speak at a veteran's rally in Des Moines, Iowa January 28, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Mark Palzer shows his support for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump before a campaign rally at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma January 20, 2016. REUTERS/Nick Oxford
Barbara Tomasino shows her support for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump before a campaign rally at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, January 20, 2016. REUTERS/Nick Oxford
Supporters of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attend a campaign rally at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, January 20, 2016. REUTERS/Nick Oxford
Liberty University students and supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wear letters spelling his name before his speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, January 18, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
A supporter of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wears a National Rifle Association shirt before his speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, January 18, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Trump supporters Joshua Smith (from Left) and Seth Stephens, both of Aiken, South Carolina and Rona Bartolomucci of Hilton Head Island, wait along the front buffer before a rally for U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, December 30, 2015. REUTERS/Randall Hill
FOUNTAIN HILLS, AZ - MARCH 19: Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump look on during Fountain Park during a campaign rally on March 19, 2016 in Fountain Hills, Arizona. Trumps visit to Arizona is the second time in three months as he looks to gain the GOP nomination for President. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MARCH 18: A supporter waits for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speak at a campaign rally on March 18, 2016 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Republican and Democratic caucuses are March 22. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
A supporter of Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, wears campaign stickers on her sandals before a town hall event at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Florida, U.S., on Monday, March 14, 2016. As protesters shadow campaign appearances by Trump, the billionaire has shifted a planned Monday-night rally in south Florida to Ohio, where polls show Governor John Kasich may be pulling ahead days before the states primary election. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Trump supporters pass out signs prior to a rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on March 13, 2016 in Boca Raton, Florida. Primary voters head to the polls on March 15th in Florida. / AFP / RHONA WISE (Photo credit should read RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images)
Attendees wait for the start of a campaign event with Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, not pictured, in Bloomington, Illinois, U.S., on Sunday, March 13, 2016. After violent protests prompted Donald Trump to cancel a rally in Chicago on Friday night, the Republican presidential front-runner blamed the activist group MoveOn.Org and supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders for the chaos, while defending his own harassed supporters. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, left, stands with a man he called onto the stage from the crowd because of the 'Legal Immigrant For Trump' t-shirt he was wearing, during a campaign event in Bloomington, Illinois, U.S., on Sunday, March 13, 2016. After violent protests prompted Donald Trump to cancel a rally in Chicago on Friday night, the Republican presidential front-runner blamed the activist group MoveOn.Org and supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders for the chaos, while defending his own harassed supporters. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 11: A supporter exists the University of Illinois at Chicago Pavilion where Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump cancelled a campaign rally over safety concerns March 11, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Illinois Republican presidential primary will be held March 15. (Photo by Jonathan Gibby/Getty Images)
Supporters of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump gather prior to a Trump Rally at the Peabody Opera House on March 11, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri. / AFP / Michael B. Thomas (Photo credit should read MICHAEL B. THOMAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump gather prior to a Trump Rally at the Peabody Opera House on March 11, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri. / AFP / Michael B. Thomas (Photo credit should read MICHAEL B. THOMAS/AFP/Getty Images)
RADFORD, VA - FEBRUARY 29: A campaign rally for Donald J. Trump, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, at the Radford University Dedmon Arena in Radford, Virginia, on Monday, February 29, 2016. (Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images Reportage)
A woman reacts as U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump works the crowd following a campaign event in an airplane hanger in Rome, New York April 12, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
A woman reacts as U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump works the crowd following a campaign event in an airplane hanger in Rome, New York April 12, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
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Trump's opposition to free trade is at odds with the views of many Republicans, especially in the party's business wing. Many of Trump's critics also find his rhetoric offensive, including his call to temporarily bar Muslims from entering the country and his comment describing Mexican immigrants to the United States as rapists and drug dealers.

Some Republicans say they worry that any third-party candidate would only siphon votes away from Trump and help Clinton win the election.

Ralph Nader's run as the Green Party candidate in the 2000 presidential election has been blamed by some Democrats for the razor-thin loss of Democratic nominee Al Gore to George W. Bush. Ross Perot's independent candidacy in 1992 was seen by some Republicans as contributing to President George H.W. Bush's loss to Democrat Bill Clinton.

One outcome, although rare, may be that no candidate crosses the necessary threshold of 270 votes in the U.S. Electoral College. In that case, the vote for the next president would pass to the U.S. House of Representatives, currently controlled by Republicans.

Deborah DeMoss Fonseca, who recruited donors for former Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush and is working with Conservatives Against Trump, said her group was trying to find a candidate who would be high-profile enough to compete with Trump and Clinton.

NO EASY TASK

But finding a candidate of that caliber who would be willing to run is no easy feat. Searby's group has reached out to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and James Mattis, a retired U.S. Marine Corps general, among others, but both declined after discussions.

Republican U.S. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska has emerged as a favorite of the Republicans seeking a third-party candidate. Kristol has had warm words for him.

Sasse, a freshman lawmaker and former Bush administration official, is a strong critic of Trump and has called for an alternative candidate to him. But he says that person should be someone other than him.

On Wednesday, the morning after Trump emerged as the presumptive presidential nominee, phones at the office of Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson were ringing off the hook with calls from small-government Republicans who feel they cannot get behind Trump.

But as a Libertarian, Johnson holds views on some issues, such as the legalization of marijuana, that are antithetical to the views of some Republicans.

In March, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, said he had considered jumping into the race as a third-party candidate but opted against it, saying he feared it would only serve to help get Trump elected.

"The possibility for a third party to succeed are slim to none," said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. "The structure of American politics have consistently made it impossible for third parties to gain ground."

One of the biggest obstacles to a third-party run is simply getting on the ballot in enough states to mount a viable campaign.

Texas requires more than 79,000 signatures from voters who did not participate in either primary. Its deadline is Monday. Among other states, North Carolina's deadline is the end of May, and Illinois and Florida in mid-July.

"A third-party candidate is a pipe dream," said Republican strategist Tony Fratto, who worked in Bush's administration and strongly opposes Trump. "What's going to happen is Hillary Clinton is going to win big. It won't be close."

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