A little before Christmas Donald Trump received a gift from the Republican Party of Virginia.
It came in the form of a loyalty pledge that the RPV is newly imposing on all voters who wish to take part in Virginia’s March 1 Republican primary. Seemingly not content with having voters voting for Republican candidates, the RPV is now demanding that these voters sign an official Statement of Affiliation that reads “I am a Republican.” This pledge also requests the voter’s email address and telephone number.
The RPV has not required this loyalty pledge in the three previous presidential primaries. Why now? There is only one reasonable conclusion: the loyalty pledge is a thinly veiled attempt to stem the coming tidal wave of new voters in Virginia’s Republican primary that Donald Trump’s candidacy is almost certain to bring about.
And why would the RPV want to do anything to reduce a wave of new Republicans? Again, there’s a pretty reasonable conclusion. The majority of Republicans on the RPV’s governing body simply favor presidential candidates other than Trump. If requiring a loyalty pledge can cut into Trump’s vote and help another candidate at the expense of a larger Republican party, so be it
Welcome to hardball politics in Virginia, or “dirty tricks” as a new website opposed to this loyalty pledge puts it. There’s a reason that “keep it small, keep it all” is a mantra of Virginia’s old Republican guard.
But this foolish play by the RPV is almost certainly going to backfire and end up strengthening Trump, not weakening him
Have these RPV power brokers ever been to a Trump rally or listened to a Trump speech? Have they not noticed that Trump is dominating the national conversation and has been doing so for months? Does the RPV really think it is going to win the fight over the political meaning of its arbitrary loyalty pledge with the biggest megaphone in the country
Good luck with that.
Instead, what’s likely to happen is that Trump will, in his colorful style, explain the play that’s going on in Virginia against him and present himself as the defender of a bigger, more diverse, more welcoming, and more inclusive Republican party. The kind of larger Republican Party that is necessary to make America great again. He will contrast this picture of himself against unprincipled power brokers who care less about growing the party and helping America than they are about keeping their own power.
And Trump will speak directly to African Americans, Independents, and fallen away Republicans and tell them that he sympathizes with the situation they will face when they go to vote for him on March 1 in Virginia. He will tell them that he understands that while they may be comfortable calling themselves Trump Republicans, it’s going to be difficult for them to state an affiliation with a party to which they have historically not been attracted or with which they have become disillusioned in recent years.
He’s going to tell his supporters that it’s OK to do so, that rising above the RPV’s childish game is a small price to pay to Make America Great Again. He’s going to let everyone know that they don’t have to give any personal information as requested by the loyalty pledge, a request which may confuse voters in the voting booth if they were not made aware in advance that it is optional. And Trump might even suggest that they should sign the statement with a single letter T as an indication of contempt.
And then he may very well close this particular story in his upcoming speeches in Virginia with a call to action that after he wins in Virginia, he wants his supporters to organize in every county in the state, join the local parties, and vote for local and statewide Republican leaders who will put an end to these RPV games. And that by doing so, they can realize a sweet justice against those who sought to scare them off from voting for him.
Could the Virginia insiders have handed Trump a blunter tool by which to bludgeon and then replace them?
The Virginia loyalty pledge has implications for national Republican officials as well.
After the Republican loss in the 2012 campaign, the Republican National Committee (RNC), under Chairman Reince Priebus, commissioned an independent study called the Growth and Opportunity Project to “make recommendations about how to grow the party and win more elections.” In its report, the independent panel recommended that the Republican Party “has to stop talking to itself” and it urged Republicans to “engage with voters who don’t always identify with Republicans.” It went on to lament that “we [Republicans] have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.”
Instead of keeping the party small, the report recommended:
A Party whose brand of conservatism invites and inspires new people to visit us. We need to remain America’s conservative alternative to big-government, redistribution-to-extremes liberalism, while building a route into our Party that a non-traditional Republican will want to travel. Our standard should not be universal purity; it should be a more welcoming conservatism.
A year later, the independent panel revisited its recommendations and wrote “we continue to urge our candidates to do their part to engage with all communities and people of all backgrounds so that voters conclude that the GOP is a welcoming and inclusive party.”
The Republican party of Virginia is not listening to this advice about inclusion and people in Virginia are noticing. Just this week three African American pastors filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the RPV’s loyalty pledge. They contend the loyalty pledge “is especially repugnant when set against Virginia’s sordid history of discrimination.” Ouch. That is probably not what the RPV was going for.
And what about Reince Priebus and the RNC? Did the RNC really mean it when it embraced the 2013 recommendations about welcoming and including new groups of voters? The RNC’s silence about the loyalty pledge farce in Virginia calls into question its commitment to “building a route into our Party that a non-traditional Republican will want to travel.
All the while, Trump gets stronger. Donald Trump: Party Builder. Who would have thought? No doubt Mr. Trump will soon be thanking the RPV and the RNC for the opportunity to make this clear to everyone. A very nice gift indeed.
Vince Haley was policy director and later campaign manager of Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign. He recently competed for the Republican nomination for a seat in the Virginia Senate.