POLL: Will Donald Trump become president?
With Ted Cruz and John Kasich bowing out of the presidential race, the path toward the the Republican nomination is wide open for Donald Trump, leaving local GOP legislators, and the party as a whole, grappling with what seemed to be an impossibility nine months ago.
Now the presumptive nominee, Trump will be tasked with uniting the GOP over the next several months in order to prevent Democratic control of the White House. On Wednesday, some Republican leaders said they would be falling in line behind the real estate mogul and they have hope for his campaign in the coming general election.
"My plan always has been to support the Republican nominee," said U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
"It is my hope that the national conversation will shift to what the candidates will do to solve the problems our nation faces. I do believe Donald Trump's foreign policy speech last week was an important step in that direction."
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., echoed Corker, saying, "I will back the Republican nominee for president 100 percent. If that is going to be Donald Trump, I will certainly get out and campaign for him and support him 100 percent."
Gov. Bill Haslam, who has questioned some of Trump's controversial stances, is visiting China on an economic development trip and could not be reached for comment Wednesday to say whether he would now support Trump.
House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, who voted for Cruz in the state's March primary, said he would ultimately back Trump in November, even though he doesn't see eye to eye with him.
"I'm just not convinced he's an intellectual conservative," Casada, R-Franklin, said. "I will vote for him in the fall."
Support for Trump was echoed elsewhere in the state.
"At this point, it's important for unity, not only in the party but in the country," said Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, a suburb of Memphis. "I can't support Hillary Clinton, and if Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, I'll support him."
But even with growing support among establishment Republicans, the general election may still prove challenging for a candidate who has singlehandedly defined a new normal for presidential races while making some enemies along the way.
"Donald Trump has built his campaign on fear, stoking the embers of racism, sexism, and xenophobia that still remain in this country, but that hasn't stopped the Tennessee Republicans from endorsing and actively campaigning for him," Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini said in a statement Wednesday.
The Democratic Party chairman for Hamilton County, Terry Lee, agreed with Mancini, saying he is astonished Trump managed to make it this far.
"He has said so many negative things and made it so blatant that his campaign is based on hate, he clearly has bet on the fact that people are upset without offering alternatives and by doing that, he's going to have a much tougher row to hoe," Lee said.
If Trump does win, Lee is not optimistic about what that might mean for the country.
"My opinion is that we'll be at war within six months of him assuming office," he said. "I don't have any doubt about that."
Recognizing how divisive Trump has been throughout the nomination process, Dr. John Greer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said Trump could struggle against a Democratic candidate, but that doesn't mean his bid is hopeless.
"Trump faces an uphill battle, there's no doubt about that, but he's confounded experts so far. When he announced his candidacy last summer no one thought it would be anything more than a one- or two-month undertaking, and now he's a presumptive nominee."
Beyond the race and the widespread Republican fear of yet another Democrat in the White House, Greer believes the GOP should be more concerned with what would happen if the billionaire actually rises to the challenge.
"I think the bigger threat to the Republican party is not Donald Trump losing, it's Donald Trump winning, because then he would remake the party in his own image," he said.
"If he loses, then the Kasich and Cruz wings of the party go back at it and start figuring out what they're going to do in 2020. The old battle between the purists and the pragmatists will reassert itself."
But for now, a growing number of Republican leaders is listening to the voices of the party's voters, throwing their weight behind a man who has criticized the very political establishment they represent.
"We have a primary process in the United States and I have to respect that process," said Tony Sanders, the Republican party chairman for Hamilton County. "Trump was not my candidate, but he is the one who is ultimately going to win the party nomination.
"I guarantee I agree with him a lot more than Hillary Clinton, so in my mind, there's no doubt I'm going to cast a vote for Donald Trump."
The Tennessean contributed to this story.
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731.