This article is part of the The DC Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox every weekday.
Republicans are about to implement a Donald Trump loyalty test inside its central party committee, the latest move to gauge fealty to the de facto party leader that could potentially kill the next presidential nominee’s chance to reach voters.
The Republican National Committee is poised to amend its party rules during its winter meeting in Salt Lake City next month to demand any contenders for the presidential nomination pledge to skip general-election debates sponsored by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, the New York Times reported yesterday. The group has organized the televised sessions dating to 1988 and drawn Trump’s scorn since 2016 for its perceived biases. Any candidate who does not comply could lose the RNC’s support.
The test isn’t one just for the candidates themselves, who would have to promise that, if voters choose them as the nominee, they’ll stick to the plan aimed solely at appeasing Trump. The move is curiously ironic, given Trump very well might be the nominee anyway. Each of the 168 members of the RNC will have to go on the record in the vote on the matter in February on whether they side with Trump’s contempt of the obscure panel or to keep the party chasing every possible voter in elections that have historically been decided at the margins.
The vote sets up a self-purging of the RNC, a byzantine organization with complicated rules but one that nevertheless controls much of the mechanics of how the party picks—and sustains—its nominee. Unlike a normal general election, the RNC has fairly unilateral control over who gets to debate during the primaries, where the debates are held and what news orgs get to ask the questions. An RNC that puts its thumb on the scales can essentially shut-out unfavored candidates—or effectively throw the nomination to Trump if its members decide to be shameless. And if you don’t think a party’s apparatchiks can interfere with an election, just ask Hillary Clinton’s ill-gotten delegates from Florida and Michigan, states that defied the Democratic National Committee in 2008 by jumping the line with their primaries and ended up stripped of half of their delegates as penance.
For the general, the major parties can always unofficially dump a nominee mid-race. There was talk of doing it in 2016 on one history-making day when the U.S. officially accused Russia of hacking the DNC and Trump’s Access Hollywood video captured him bragging about sexual assault. But Clinton adviser John Podesta’s stolen emails quickly overtook Trump’s troubles, and the RNC stuck with their candidate.
With roughly two years before the nominating window formally opens, there is plenty of time for state parties to dump any RNC member who dare defy Trump’s grievance and seek to keep the Commission on Presidential Debates in charge of what are quadrennial political Super Bowls. It’s shaping up to be a litmus test for those who seek tradition yet would instantly be branded as a NeverTrumper.
The move reflects how the GOP is confronting the specter of the former President’s supremacy inside the party. It’s already in full swing elsewhere. On Capitol Hill, the man who may become Speaker of the House should Republicans tip the majority their way this fall is now refusing to cooperate with a bipartisan panel investigating the events that unfolded during a violent and incomplete insurrection on Jan. 6 to keep Trump in power. Instead, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has wrapped himself in Trump’s assertion that any move to find out what happened that day—and what led to it—is a partisan witch hunt that can be treated like trash.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, who on Jan. 6 stormed to the floor of the Senate after the rioters were turned back, declared himself done with the Trumpist theatrics that built a gallows to hang lawmakers and then-Vice President Mike Pence. But this week, he was threatening to oppose Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s return to power if the Senate flips this fall. Why? McConnell has proven consistently noncommittal to Trump’s primacy in the party, and Trump has lashed out at him repeatedly since leaving office. (There is almost zero chance Republicans can reclaim the majority without McConnell, the party’s savviest strategist, so Republicans will ultimately have to either find a way to make peace with him or remain content in the minority.)
Across the country, candidates are working at standing strong with the ex-President. In Nevada, one of the Republicans running for the GOP nomination for Governor is running an ad filmed in a desert with a “Trump 2024” on the back of her Ford pickup truck. Before she pulls a gun from a holster slung on her hip, she brags about being one of the first Republican officials to endorse Trump, drawing the Politico headline, “The Lady Is a Trump.” She’s airing the ad outside her state in just one media market: Palm Beach, Fla., home to Trump’s Mar a Lago estate.
Thus, this is the reality facing the Republican Party: Trump remains the most powerful—and, simultaneously, perhaps the most self-destructive—force inside a party that in 2013 spent heavily after Mitt Romney’s loss to study where it went wrong in 2012. The findings back then said the party had to make inroads with growing populations like younger voters and communities of color. Instead, the party has veered in the other direction. It went from earning 44% among Latinos in 2004 to 28% support in 2016 and 32% support last year. They’ve doubled down on the enduring political reality that white Americans still comprise about 7-in-10 voters and Republicans can win if they just run up that column and suppress non-white voters’ power.
But the numbers alone don’t tell the full story. This is the party that elected Ronna Romney McDaniel as its only second female chair in history in 2017, only to see her drop her uncle’s name in official correspondence shortly after and begin working against his Senate bid because he was—and is still seen as—a NeverTrumper.
Next month, McDaniel is going to ask her colleagues at the RNC to reject the longtime host of presidential debates because that’s what will make Trump happy. The choice is not a strategic move or even one that expands the reach of the party, but an emotional play aimed at a party of one. And, at least for the moment, that is the essence of the modern Republican Party.
Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the daily D.C. Brief newsletter.