June 13, 2024 1:54 pm

GOP grapples with how to control Trump – again

GOP leaders are sending warnings that they want former President Donald Trump to play by the rules and put his party above his own interests as he embarks on a third campaign – that is, to behave in a way he rarely, if ever, has before.

Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel gave the clearest sign yet on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday that 2024 GOP White House candidates will have to pledge to back the party’s presidential nominee if it isn’t them – or risk being banned from the debate stage.

“I think it’s kind of a no-brainer, right?” McDaniel told Dana Bash, adding that formal criteria haven’t yet been established for the first debate in August. “If you’re going to be on the Republican National Committee debate stage asking voters to support you, you should say, ‘I’m going to support the voters and who they choose as the nominee,’” McDaniel added.

The former president, who signed a loyalty pledge in 2015, responded with his typical hubris on Sunday, despite recent polling showing that enthusiasm for him among the GOP isn’t what it used to be. “President Trump will support the Republican nominee because it will be him,” a campaign spokesperson told CNN in response to McDaniel’s prediction there’d be a loyalty pledge required of candidates.

Trump has already said that whether he would back someone other than himself as the 2024 Republican nominee would depend on who the candidate was. Given that he is attacking his potential primary rivals, especially high-flying Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the potential for new party splits is growing.

Ever since Trump took control of the GOP with his 2016 nomination and victory, the party has almost always capitulated to his unruly instincts and crushing of rules and conventions – most notoriously appeasing his extremism during two impeachments. Many GOP lawmakers amplified his false claims of electoral fraud in the 2020 presidential election and whitewashed his role in the January 6, 2021, insurrection.

Yet Trump’s intervention in last year’s midterm elections, when many of his election-denying acolytes lost in swing states and helped to quell a Republican red wave, highlighted how his own priorities may diverge from his party’s. Some Republican leaders blame Trump and the way he alienates more moderate, suburban voters for the party’s disappointing performances when they lost the House in 2018, the Senate and White House in 2020 and fell short of expectations in 2022, even though they flipped the House. As a result, some top GOP donors and opinion formers have argued that it’s time for the party to move on from a candidate who is radioactive with many voters and who could thwart their chances of defeating President Joe Biden in an expected reelection bid. It remains to be seen if this view is shared among Trump’s longtime base.

Questions about whether Trump would support DeSantis as nominee – or anyone else who might beat him – stemmed from a radio interview with Hugh Hewitt earlier this month.

“It would depend. I would give you the same answer I gave in 2016 during the debate. … It would have to depend on who the nominee was,” Trump said.

It would be a nightmare scenario for the GOP if Trump were to lose the party’s nominating contest next year but spend the general election railing against the party’s presidential pick. Even small defections among Trump’s devoted grassroots political base could be critical in the kind of swing state races that decided the last two presidential elections.

Trump rarely plays by the rules

Trump acts as if he is entitled to his third consecutive spot at the top of the Republican Party’s presidential ticket. But that assumption will face a new test this week when DeSantis, whom Trump has already accused of disloyalty for considering a White House run, promotes and releases a new book in a rite of passage for potential presidential candidates.

Trump has also lashed out at Nikki Haley, who served as his ambassador to the United Nations and has launched a 2024 bid rooted in calls for a new generation of American political leadership. Both Trump and Haley are scheduled to speak at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington, DC. DeSantis, meanwhile, is scheduled to attend events in Texas and California.

While requiring debate candidates to sign a pledge to support the nominee would be a show of party unity and would, in effect, be an attempt to box Trump in, it would hardly be enforceable should the ex-president not win the nomination. Given that Trump already falsely claimed the 2020 general election, which he lost fair and square, was marred by voter fraud, it’s hardly far-fetched to believe he may trash any nomination process that he doesn’t win.

But McDaniel said on CNN that she was sure that all the candidates would sign such a pledge, noting Trump had signed on in the 2016 race and raising the leverage that the party has in getting all of the candidates on board.

“I think they all want to be on the debate stage. I think President Trump would like to be on the debate stage. That’s what he likes to do,” McDaniel told Bash.

The RNC head, who just won her own contested reelection, also warned that the GOP has lost big races in the midterms “because of Republicans refusing to support other Republicans. And unless we fix this in our party, unless we start coming together, we will not win in 2024.”

McDaniel may also have a problem beyond Trump, since some possible GOP 2024 contenders have warned that following his role in inciting a mob attack on Congress in one of the most damaging blows to US democracy in modern times, the ex-president is no longer fit to carry the party’s banner or for the presidency.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said on CBS this month that Trump had “disqualified himself and should not serve our country again as a result of what happened” on January 6, 2021. But Hutchinson did not say whether he would decline to endorse Trump if he were the nominee. Another possible anti-Trump candidate, former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, suggested to Hewitt this month that he would support the ex-president if he was the party’s nominee but later said on Twitter, “Trump won’t commit to supporting the Republican nominee, and I won’t commit to supporting him.”

Signs of vulnerability in Trump’s campaign

One reason why the question of whether Trump would endorse a nominee other than himself in 2024 is so topical is because of some early signs that the former president might not have quite the hold on his party as he once did. His campaign hasn’t exactly caught fire since he launched it last fall. Some recent polls, while too far out from primary voting to be decisive, suggest that DeSantis is closely matched with Trump – even if other candidates like Haley and potential candidates like ex-Vice President Mike Pence trail in single figures.

After his bumper reelection win in Florida in November, DeSantis is seen by some party figures as representative of Trump’s populist, cultural and “America First” principles without the indiscipline and scandal that follows the ex-president. The Florida governor has adopted Trump’s pugilistic partisan style, telling Fox News host Mark Levin on Sunday that he had made “the Democratic Party in our state, basically, a rotten carcass on the side of the street.”

It remains a question, however, how DeSantis would stand up to Trump’s searing attacks on a debate stage. And many once vaunted candidates – like former Govs. Jeb Bush of Florida and Scott Walker of Wisconsin – have looked strong in theory, only to see their campaigns flame out when they hit the trail.

Still, McDaniel’s message on Sunday shows the depth of party concern that an untamed Trump could again severely impair the Republican Party’s hopes of winning the White House and control of Congress.

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