COLUMBIA, S.C. — Republicans in early voting states are grappling with how — and whether — to protect President Donald Trump from a potential primary challenger in 2020.
South Carolina's GOP chairman said Wednesday the party was considering cancelling its presidential primary, a move that would make it harder for a challenger to gather delegates to wrest the party's nomination from Trump. That follows a debate unfolding in New Hampshire, where some of Trump's backers are pushing for the removal of longstanding rules that prevent the state party from taking sides in a primary.
In Iowa, there's no plan to alter the caucus process to block potential Trump rivals from participating. But state GOP Chairman Jeff Kauffman has said he will defend the president should any prospective challengers begin making moves.
The activity reflects a party weighing how far to go to fend off potential primary challengers. So far, no one has said they'd run against Trump in a primary, a move that would be extraordinarily difficult given the president's popularity among the GOP base. But outgoing Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee are among those who have entertained the possibility, forcing party leaders to think through their options.
In South Carolina, which holds the first-in-the-South contest, GOP leaders said they weren't trying to shield Trump from a challenger and instead questioned the need for a primary when the president faces no Republican challengers.
"At this point, I'm not aware of a need for a primary," South Carolina GOP Chairman Drew McKissick told The Associated Press Wednesday.
He cited Trump's popularity among South Carolinians among the reasons to possibly skip over the 2020 nominating contest, which he views as a foregone conclusion. According to AP VoteCast, The Associated Press' nationwide survey of the 2018 midterm electorate, 53 percent of voters in South Carolina said they approve of Trump. Fully 86 percent of Republicans approved, while 96 percent of Democrats disapproved.
"The state party and the grassroots within the state, all around the state, totally support the president," McKissick said. "The purpose of political parties is to unify around the platform and elect candidates who will advance that platform."
McKissick stressed that no final decision would be made until June 2019 at the earliest, and there is precedent. In 1984, state party leaders opted to call off South Carolina's GOP primary as President Ronald Reagan sought a second term.
"Obviously President Reagan was very popular," said Warren Tompkins, a political consultant who served as executive director of South Carolina's Republican Party at the time. "There was really no known organized opponent on the horizon."
South Carolina Republicans did hold a 1992 primary, when Pat Buchanan mounted a challenge from the right to President George H.W. Bush. In 2004, the GOP again cancelled the state's primary with leaders opting instead to endorse President George W. Bush's pursuit of a second term.
"The party is well within its rights to not hold a primary and to endorse the president," said Matt Moore, who finished two terms as state GOP chairman after the 2016 election cycle. "It simply means that all the party's delegates at the convention will be given to the president."
Democrats have used the tactic themselves. The South Carolina Democratic Party didn't hold presidential primaries in 1996 or in 2012, as Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama sought their second terms and faced no opposition.
Not having to deal with the trappings that come along with a presidential primary can free up officials to look at other races. Strategist Luke Byars points out that by skipping the 2004 presidential primary, South Carolina Republicans were able to focus on winning a seat left open by Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings' retirement.
"The U.S. Senate was much more on the top of our priority list," Byars said.
But with more than two dozen Democrats mulling White House bids in 2020, Tompkins cautioned Republicans against allowing the other party to occupy all the state's political news sphere.11 comments on this story
"It would probably behoove us to have the primary," Tompkins said. "I would hate to see the publicity and all that attention go to the Democrats."
McKissick said his focus remained more on strategy and less on theatrics.
"Why would we want to distract attention from the absolute circus that's going to be the Democratic primary?" McKissick asked. "Our job is not to satisfy everybody's need for political entertainment."
Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, and Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.