Moves by Republican organizers in four states to cancel party primaries and rubber-stamp the 2020 renomination of President Donald Trump smacks of cowardice among Trump-supporting party officials. What are they afraid of? More to the point, if there was ever a time when party rank and file needed the opportunity to change course, this is it.
Primaries are party functions, and it’s neither unprecedented nor unconstitutional for state parties to cancel them. Both parties have done it at times, generally when an incumbent president from that party is running for reelection without significant internal dissatisfaction or challenge. South Carolina Republicans, for example, canceled primaries in 1984 and 2004 to clear the way for the second-term renomination of, respectively, presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
South Carolina is among at least four states (with Kansas, Nevada and Arizona) where Republicans are canceling next year’s GOP primaries, officially supporting Trump’s second-term renomination without allowing party voters to have a say.
What’s different this time? Everything. Reagan and Bush were generally unifying figures among Republicans. In Bush’s case, that changed by the end of his tenure, but at the time both were running for reelection, each could reasonably claim to represent the Republican mainstream. Trump, conversely, is a deeply divisive figure even among fellow Republicans.
Polls showing Trump’s support among Republicans at more than 80% don’t count those who used to call themselves Republicans but — because of Trump — no longer do. Polls indicate those who self-identify as Republicans dropped by as much as five percentage points during Trump’s first year, with blocs like suburban women fleeing in droves. One result was the GOP’s midterm drubbing in House contests. The high number of House GOP incumbents deciding not to seek reelection almost certainly is linked to the difficulties they face constantly having to defend the person at the top of the ticket.
Whatever you think of Trump’s performance as president, he is undeniably pulling the GOP in a fundamentally different direction. His populist bombast appeals to many Republicans, but it dismays many others. Think about it: Was there anything like a Never Reagan or Never Bush movement among Republicans in the past?
Party bigwigs have no right to silence those Republicans who believe that Trumpism represents an existential threat to the GOP’s future. As a strategic matter alone, it’s risky to automatically hand renomination to a president who in most national polls has never broken 50% approval.
Ultimately, the best case for letting all Republicans weigh in was articulated by three of his primary challengers — former South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld — in an unusual joint op-ed last month in The Washington Post: “If a party stands for nothing but reelection, it indeed stands for nothing.”