Not sure if you heard the breaking news but, well, the 2020 Republican primaries are canceled!
Well, not totally canceled. Some states will still hold them. But at least four states – South Carolina, Arizona, Kansas and Nevada – either have or will soon cancel their primaries and caucuses, simply assigning their delegates at the 2020 Republican National Convention directly to President Donald Trump.
“As a general rule, when either party has an incumbent president in the White House, there’s no rationale to hold a primary,” South Carolina GOP Chairman Drew McKissick said about the move.
That’s generally true. South Carolina didn’t hold a Republican primary in 1984 or 2004 when Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were running for second terms. In 2004, in fact, 10 states canceled their GOP nominating contests.
But there is a big difference between those past examples and 2020. Actually, three big differences, named Bill Weld, Joe Walsh and Mark Sanford. All three of those men – two former governors and a former House member – are running against Trump for the 2020 Republican nomination, each promising to take back the party that the billionaire businessman seized by the throat in 2016.
To be clear: None of the three have much of a chance. For all of Trump’s bragging and misleading, he’s right about one thing: The Republican base absolutely loves him. In Gallup’s most recent monthly tracking poll, 88% of Republicans approved of the job Trump is doing. (Sidebar: Just 39% of the general populace approved of how Trump is doing his job.)
Asked about the state primaries Monday, Trump told reporters that he had no role in the cancellations. He added that he’s not looking to give any credibility to his three primary opponents, who he called a “joke” and a “laughingstock.”
“The four states that canceled it don’t want to waste their money,” Trump said. “Having primary campaigns and having a primary election is very expensive.”
It’s hard to beat ANY incumbent president in a primary – just ask Ted Kennedy! – but especially one that 9 in 10 base voters think is doing a good job.
But just because Trump is very, very likely to be the Republican nominee in 2020 doesn’t mean that states shouldn’t give GOP voters the chance to have their say on his presidency.
“This is not North Korea or Russia. Donald Trump is trying to eliminate elections,” Walsh told MSNBC of the cancellations. “That is undemocratic BS. It’s wrong and that’s the kind of thing that should piss off Republican voters.”
Now, obviously, states do have the right to decide whether to have primaries or caucuses. Why? Because these are intra-party races, meaning that the state party in each state gets to decide the parameters of how they work or if they happen at all.
And there are legitimate reasons to decide against holding primaries – especially at the presidential level. It costs a big chunk of change to stage a primary and often cash-strapped state parties either don’t have the money or don’t want to spend it on a meaningless vote.
But this isn’t a meaningless vote! Yes, Trump is a heavy favorite, but there are three credible former Republican elected officials running in the race as well. This is not a walkover situation!
So what’s really going on here? Well, Trump’s campaign has, almost from the moment he won the White House, worked to install loyalists at state parties around the country in hopes of thwarting any active rebellion as the president looks to a second term.
The cancellation of primaries is simply an extension of that approach. Trump doesn’t want there to be a public opposition to him in the Republican primary – for fear of being embarrassed – and so he and his people have worked hard to ensure that outcome.
There is some precedent here. In 2012, Barack Obama wasn’t seriously – or even non-seriously – challenged for the Democratic nomination.
But in West Virginia, a prisoner named Keith Judd who was serving 17 and a half years for extortion at a prison in Texas, somehow got on the Democratic primary ballot. Judd wound up getting 41% – more than 70,000 primary votes.
How did Judd do it? Well, he didn’t. A sizable chunk of West Virginia – even its Democrats – loathed Obama for his environmental policies, and Judd was a vehicle to express that discontent.
Trump wants to avoid that sort of incident at all costs. Part of his mystique – such as it is – revolves around the idea that Republicans love him more than they have ever loved any other president. Any vulnerability in that armor makes Trump look weak. And Trump hates looking weak.
Of the decisions by a handful of states to cancel their GOP primaries and caucuses, Trump 2020 spokesman Tim Murtaugh said this: “These are decisions made entirely by state parties and there are volumes of historical precedents to support them. Nevertheless, President Trump will dominate and prevail in whatever contest is placed before him.”
Dominate and prevail!
That sort of tough talk does make you wonder: If Trump and his allies are SO certain of his success against the candidates he has taken to referring to as the “Three Stooges,” then why go out of his way to limit the number of chances those candidates have at beating him? If all Republicans are aligned behind Trump, why not use the primary and caucuses over the next year to prove it?
Because maybe, just maybe, Trump and his loyalists know not everyone in the party is with him – and they want to make sure that trickle doesn’t turn into a flood.
CNN’s Sarah Westwood and Caroline Kenny contributed to this report.