The Swamp was abuzz Wednesday with palace intrigue that Mitt Romney would challenge President Donald Trump in 2020 for the Republican Party’s re-nomination.
Romney, who hadn’t even taken his seat as the “incoming freshman senator,” to quote his niece, Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel (née Romney), had written an indictment of the Trump presidency overnight in The Washington Post.
This drove the day with dozens of stories in just about every publication ranging from Vanity Fair to the usual anti-Trump broadsheet, The New York Times. Even the Associated Press joined the fray, pushing a triple-bylined story across the wires to more than a thousand local and regional newspapers.
By late afternoon Romney was giving an exclusive TV interview. However, something changed from when he was published in The Washington Post and when he sat down with CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Yes, Romney knocked Trump, but he also tried to walk back his earlier criticism. The former Massachusetts governor and two-time presidential candidate, who is only the second person in U.S. political history to have served as governor of one state and senator of another, proceeded to disavow any desire to run for president in 2020.
Of course, that was an absurd claim for Romney to make. Yet he managed to say it with a straight face.
Romney and his extended circle of advisers and courtiers knew exactly what would happen when Romney’s indictment of Trump was submitted for publication. One RNC member accused Romney of “calculated political treachery.”
Romney, who won a seat in the U.S. Senate after the Romney family’s fifth try, doesn’t actually want to run against Trump. That’s because he will lose absent the president’s impeachment or criminal indictment by the special counsel Robert Mueller.
Instead, Romney wanted to remind everyone that he is still there, waiting in the wings should circumstances change. It remains a possibility that Trump could at some point between now and early 2020, when the actual primaries and caucuses will be held, opt against re-election. Trump could under such a scenario credibly claim to have achieved everything he set out to do as president. This would become even more of a possibility if he managed to get all or part of the wall on the United States–Mexico border funded.
Regardless of the circumstances, if Romney or someone else wanted to challenge Trump or run in a sudden, last-minute race to replace him there is one obvious path to the Republican nomination.
It starts not in Iowa or New Hampshire, but in the United States Virgin Islands.
Jevon Williams, the RNC member who accused Romney of “calculated political treachery,” represents the islands in the West Indies on the Republican National Committee chaired by Romney’s niece.
As with the other four colonial-era U.S. territories — American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico — the Virgin Islands doesn’t vote for president in the general election, as only the 50 states and the District of Columbia have votes in the all-important Electoral College. Notwithstanding, when it comes to the Republican nomination the islands are equal with the states. Some have even drawn parallels between the outsized role of the territories and the infamous rotten boroughs.
Under Republican Party rules, a candidate for president, even someone challenging Trump for re-nomination, needs only a plurality of delegates from five states or territories to be eligible for the vote on the floor of the convention that ultimately picks the nominee.
The traditional path to the nomination is a long route that takes an incredible amount of money and political organizing. However, if #NeverTrump wanted to challenge Trump — or if the circumstances were different and Romney had his moment — a name could get placed into nomination by island-hopping through the five territories. For safe measure, they would also want to rack up a few more wins in places with actual Electoral College votes. So, add the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maryland and, if you’re Romney, Massachusetts, and Utah to the road map.
Perhaps then it should come as no surprise that it was the RNC member from the Virgin Islands who was the first to defend Trump from Romney.
Yes, Williams drew the national Republican chairwoman into awkwardly rebuking her uncle, but he also sounded an alarm by explaining that the back door to the nomination was wide open.
“Messrs. Romney, Flake, and Kasich will continue chasing their fantasy of being president, even if that means destroying our party and denying President Trump re-election,” Williams said in an email to every RNC member. “Unfortunately, loopholes in the rules governing the 2020 re-nomination campaign are enabling these so-called Republicans to flirt with the possibility of contested primaries and caucuses.”
The “loopholes in the rules” is a direct reference to aforementioned party rule that allows someone to be eligible for nomination if they have just five states or territories to their name.
Williams’s defense of Trump is both genuine — he ousted a vocal #NeverTrump RNC member back in 2016 — and parochial. Last go-around an epic battle for the Virgin Islands delegates that was one part drama and one part comedy was waged in the press, on the airwaves, in the courtroom, and at the convention in Cleveland.
Yet, for whatever reason, the RNC never closed the back door by increasing the ridiculously low threshold of just five states to a more reasonable number when it adopted rules for 2020.
Williams wants what he calls the “loopholes” closed when the full RNC meets later this month. Predictably, McDaniel and the RNC itself don’t want to discuss this, as supposedly they view it as an unnecessary distraction.
Yet it’s hard to see the RNC being able to ignore this, as it will be much easier to close the back door now than deal with the potential consequences of leaving it open come 2020.