- RNC Chair Reince Priebus is pushing the party's 2016 field to back Donald Trump
- Priebus warned that those who don't could face penalties if they run for president again
Washington (CNN)Republicans are preparing for the penalty phase of the 2016 election.
The next Republican civil war came into greater focus over the weekend when party chairman Reince Priebus threw a thinly veiled warning at former GOP 2016ers who haven't yet endorsed Donald Trump: "Get on board" or face penalties if you ever seek the presidency again.
The nudge -- aimed at Republicans such as John Kasich, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush -- was no off-the-cuff expression of frustration. Several Republican party chairs in early voting states told CNN that Priebus has spent days talking about enforcing the pledge that all 17 GOP candidates signed at the outset of the 2016 primary to support the eventual nominee.
"I can't tell you how many people have asked me, 'What are you going to do about these candidates that are not keeping their promise?'" Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann told CNN Monday.
He said the Iowa state GOP receives 10 to 20 calls per week from rank-and-file Republicans wondering what, specifically, the party will do to force Kasich, Cruz and Bush to stick to their pledges and back Trump.
"If I'm hearing it here from a state of 3 million, it must a megaphone there in DC," said Kaufmann, who has spoken with Priebus and other Republican officials about enforcing the pledge. "There's no wiggle room in terms of what that promise was, and it should be honored."
A representative for Priebus didn't comment on the conversations.
But his call for penalties wasn't widely embraced -- with the No. 2 House Republican breaking with Priebus Tuesday morning.
"There's a better way to unite people. I'm not a big believer that punishment unites people," House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters at a weekly session in the Capitol.
The California Republican added, "If Hillary (Clinton) can't unite Republicans, I don't think anything can."
Of course, talk of penalties on candidates who might run in 2020 could be all for naught if Trump wins. The race between Trump and Clinton has narrowed dramatically in recent weeks, though the Democratic nominee still has more paths to the White House. But the episode underscores the frenzy that could consume the GOP if Trump loses the race and the party searches for a new direction.
"We're watching the trailer for the GOP civil war, out in theaters November 9," said a top Republican strategist, who asked not to be named to avoid openly feuding with Priebus.
The penalty talk spilled into the open Sunday, when Priebus told John Dickerson on CBS' "Face the Nation" that members of the 2016 Republican presidential field who haven't yet abided by their pledge to back the eventual nominee and endorsed Trump need to "get on board." And for those who don't, he said future presidential bids won't "be that easy."
"If a private entity puts forward a process and has agreement with the participants in that process, and those participants don't follow through with the promises that they made in that process," Priebus said, "what should a private party do about that if those same people come around in four or eight years?"
Kasich's camp quickly zipped off a response accusing Priebus of putting party over principles. Kasich strategist John Weaver said the Ohio governor "will not be bullied by a Kenosha political operative that is unable to stand up for core principles or beliefs."
Cruz brushed Priebus off Tuesday evening.
"These are serious times. I think the last thing we need to worrying about is bickering between Republicans," he said. "My focus is on defeating Hillary Clinton and helping preserve a Senate Republican majority."
The RNC's leverage
Penalties, several Republicans said, would likely come from the national party in the form of restrictions on access to the Republican National Committee's data and voter files -- and potentially bans from primary debates. Individual states, though, likely couldn't keep candidates off their ballots.
Still, Republicans cautioned that talk of penalizing pledge-breakers is aimed at nudging Kasich, Cruz, Bush and others to support Trump in 2016 -- not to handicap the party's presidential candidates in the future. Some said it's not even clear the RNC would have authority to impose the crackdown Priebus discussed.
"Reince has simply posed a question to which there is no good answer yet -- and I'm not sure that the question deserves an answer. That's to be determined," said Matt Moore, the South Carolina GOP chairman.
RNC spokeswoman Lindsay Walters declined to address the possibility of penalizing future presidential candidates who didn't abide by their pledges to support Trump.
"We are focused on winning back the White House and maintaining our majorities in the House and Senate," Walters said in an email.
While some party honchos like Kaufmann backed Priebus' warning shot, others -- including Ohio GOP chairman Matt Borges -- bristled.
"No. This is not what we are all about as a party. Besides, let's stay focused on 2016 for the next 50 days," Borges tweeted Sunday night.
Top Mitt Romney 2012 strategist Stuart Stevens tweeted: "So idea is most popular recent Republican governors of battleground states should run as independents? Great plan."
RNC's handling of Trump
The RNC's handling of Trump under Priebus will be on trial as the party picks a new chair -- or extends the Wisconsin operative's tenure -- shortly after the election. Then comes a swing-state governor's race in Virginia, followed by the midterm elections, where Trump's brand of populism could butt against more orthodox conservatives.
And in 2020, the early stages of the Republican primary would be defined by how the candidates treated Trump. It would be the clearest differentiator of like-minded conservatives like Mike Pence, the Indiana governor who became Trump's running mate and chief defender, and Cruz, the Texas senator who was booed off stage for refusing to endorse Trump at his own nominating convention.
"Assuming Trump loses, there'll be a really pitched battle for the heart and soul of the party," said Weaver, the Kasich strategist who wrote the scathing rebuttal to Priebus on Sunday.
"You're going to have off-year elections, you're going to have midterms -- some of that will impact the defining of the party, clearly. But you won't have any new definition of it until there's a new nominee," Weaver said. "There's a broader debate ultimately about what the party stands for and where the country should go."
Many Republicans still fault Priebus for failing to criticize Trump forcefully enough in late 2015, when he proposed a clearly unconstitutional ban of all Muslims from entering the United States, and believe the party could have done more to slow Trump's rise.
They point out a particular irony: The party that insisted it couldn't intercede in the 2016 nominating contest is now threatening to use its leverage to undercut individual candidates in future races.
Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan GOP chairman who helmed Cruz's state effort in the primary, defended pledge-breaking candidates, arguing that "circumstances change" -- a reference to the pledge's creation as a tool to keep Trump from launching an independent campaign.
He said he doesn't see how Priebus could impose penalties on future presidential candidates.
"There's no provisions in the RNC rules that allow anybody to punish anybody," Anuzis said. "The idea of doing that, I think, is extremely difficult, because you normally are looking toward the future, not the past."