Weird. Not unprecedented, but weird.
“We have complete autonomy and flexibility in either direction,” [South Carolina GOP chairman Drew] McKissick told the Washington Examiner on Tuesday. “Considering the fact that the entire party supports the president, we’ll end up doing what’s in the president’s best interest.”…
Sometime next summer, as the Democratic presidential primary is getting into high gear, the South Carolina Republican Party’s executive committee is likely to meet to consider the matter. The most likely outcome is a vote to endorse Trump and take a pass on the 2020 White House nominating contest…
“Pigs will fly before the South Carolina GOP allows Trump to have opposition,” said Matt Moore, McKissick’s predecessor as chairman of the state party.
They did the same thing for Dubya in 2004, notes David Drucker, and in 1992 the Iowa GOP declined to offer a presidential ballot during the caucuses so as to spare Bush 41 from potential humiliation. Trump 2020 doesn’t fit neatly with either of those examples, though. I don’t recall any serious primary threats to Bush 43; the Pat Buchanan era of challeges had ended by that point and the Ron Paul era hadn’t yet really begun. With the party solidly behind Bush due to the war on terror, canceling the South Carolina primary was a formality. In Trump’s case, though, canceling it could conceivably spare him from a semi-serious primary challenge — not one serious enough to defeat him but serious enough to embarrass him, at least in theory. And Trump being Trump, there’s no telling what insanity might happen shortly before a primary that could affect the vote. If he got indicted a week before Primary Day, what sort of backlash might that inspire among South Carolina Republicans? We won’t get to know.
The Bush 41 analogy is better but not perfect either. Buchanan represented a populist threat to a thoroughly establishment president, and insurgencies driven by populist discontent can be dangerous. (See, e.g., Reagan 1976 and, er, Trump 2016.) Trump, however, is a populist president potentially facing an establishment insurgency. Pat Buchanan knew that there was a discrete disaffected paleocon wing of the party that might turn out if he primaried Bush. It’s not clear if there’s a similar disaffected establishmentarian wing that’s prepared to mobilize in numbers for Jeff Flake or, gulp, John Kasich. By and large I think populist voters are more willing to risk weakening an establishment president of their own party by mounting a primary challenge, since they’re disempowered and perceive the two major parties’ establishments as mostly indistinguishable anyway. Establishmentarian voters have more skin in the political game and might therefore be more reluctant to primary a populist president of their own party. After all, weaken Trump and you’re apt to end up with a Democrat in the White House.
All of which is a long way of saying: Who, exactly, does the South Carolina GOP fear is going to breeze into the heart of red-state America and humiliate Trump there? Which Republican is stronger than Trump in the south, where he cleaned up in 2016? I could understand if New Hampshire was thinking of killing the primary, as a mavericky Republican like Kasich might pile up some votes there and create bad press for POTUS. But South Carolina?
I can only assume this is a hedge against the highly, highly unlikely scenario in which Nikki Haley decides to primary him. She’s the former governor of the state and has universal name recognition there. She may be the only person in the party right now who could make a national primary against Trump interesting, and nowhere would it be more interesting than in South Carolina. There’s a 99.9 percent chance that she won’t do it, as she knows she’s all but certain to lose and that the Trumpers she’s hoping to woo in 2024 would never forgive her for trying. But there’s also a 0.1 percent chance that President Loose Cannon will dissolve the DOJ or preside over a tariff-driven economic crash or whatever next fall. Haley might be enticed into a primary if things grew so dire for Trump that it seemed not just possible but likely that she might win. But how dire would things need to be for an incumbent president to be clearly unelectable? I can’t imagine.
Maybe they’re worried about Mark Sanford too. Sanford would actually be an interesting challenger for Trump, having been ousted from office by a Trump-backed primary challenger himself. He’s outspoken in his criticism of POTUS and he has the fiscal-conservative cred to potentially get a look from dogmatic conservatives were he to run. Nowhere would he be more threatening than in South Carolina, where he too is universally known after having served as governor. He’d enjoy giving Trump a political black eye, I’m sure, and unlike Haley there’s no risk of jeopardizing a serious national candidacy down the road by running in 2020. Maybe the state GOP’s trying to discourage him before he gets any funny ideas.
Oh, if you’re thinking that maybe the SC GOP is worried about Democrats crossing over and voting in the Republican primary in hopes of embarrassing Trump, that’s not a concern in 2020. It’s true that South Carolina’s primaries are open to any voter irrespective of party registration but the Democratic battle for SC might be the single hottest election of the entire campaign, potentially decisive in terms of choosing a nominee. No South Carolina Democrat is going to waste a vote on John Kasich or Mark Sanford as a middle finger to Trump when they could cast a vastly more important vote in their own party’s primary. Frankly, canceling the Republican primary might be the SC GOP’s way of encouraging Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary and try to help choose Trump’s eventual opponent.
Exit question: What if Trump decides at the last minute that he doesn’t want to run for whatever reason? Haley and Pence would be the top contenders for the nomination and Haley would be banking on her home state to come through for her. Except … there won’t be a primary there.
Update: South Carolina GOP chair Drew McKissick emails to stress that this is an idea that’s being considered, not one the party has adopted — yet.
A reporter asked whether it’s “possible” that we “might not” have a primary, and sure, it’s “possible”. It’s not accurate to say that anybody has, or is yet, “cancelling” anything, since we’re not even at that point yet. Right now we’re proceeding like we do in every presidential cycle, and our state committee will vote in late summer to decide on all the rules regarding our national convention delegate selection and allocation, (which includes the issue of any primary), just like it does in every cycle.
Nobody at this point has been even thinking about the issue, much less talking about it. We’re still Christmas shopping for goodness sake.
But the important points are: 1) SC Republicans support the President, 2) our elected state committee makes the decision relating to primaries, and 3) no decision gets made until late summer 2019.