Last week, a number of Republican Party leaders – including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – gathered for a dinner party organized by Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee. They reportedly discussed how the party would handle the possibility of a brokered convention and, specifically, how they could prevent Donald Trump from winning the nomination if he wins a plurality but not a majority of the convention delegates.
While Trump has been uncharacteristically silent about this dinner, other Republican presidential candidates have denounced the RNC for attempting to influence the presidential nomination process. Rand Paul warned that if the establishment tried to block an outsider from winning the nomination, “there’ll be war within the party, and they’ll destroy the party.” Ben Carson has threatened to leave the Republican Party entirely.
Of course, we do not know whether there will be a brokered convention. It is entirely possible that one candidate will end up winning a comfortable majority of delegates in the primaries. But Priebus’s dinner party still raises an important question: Why is the RNC plotting against one of its own presidential candidates?
At first glance, this seems surprising. Once upon a time, as Daniel Galvin has noted, parties “controlled politicians and subordinated their ambitions to the needs of the collectivity.” But now they function mostly to help candidates by raising money and assisting them in their campaigns. These modern party organizations are not supposed to have a role in deciding which presidential candidate should win the nomination.
But history shows that the national party organizations routinely pick sides in the kinds of intra-party disagreements that would be manifest in a brokered convention.
For example, during most of the 20th century, the Democratic Party was divided between Southern conservatives and Northeastern liberals. During Eisenhower’s first term in office, the DNC tried to unite its two wings and keep both sides happy – mostly by ignoring the issues that divided the two, notably civil rights.
However, during the 1956 election, reliable Democratic voting blocs — such as blacks and union members — switched to Eisenhower in protest of Southern domination of the party. The DNC in response embraced the liberal wing of the party.
Under the leadership of chairman Paul Butler, the DNC endorsed civil rights, unions and increased government spending and promoted these new “Democratic positions,” including through its own magazine The Democratic Digest.
The DNC was clear in what its new support for these liberal policies meant for the place of Southern Democrats in the national party. As Butler stated in 1958: “If [Southern Democrats] don’t want to go along on the racial problem and the whole area of human rights, then I think they are going to have to take political asylum wherever they can find it, either in the Republican Party or a third party.”
In the 1960s and ’70s, the Republican Party faced a similar conflict between the ascendant conservative movement and moderate Republicans. Conservatives managed to control the RNC from 1960-1964. In these years, the party focused on courting the Southern white voters that the Democrats had begun to alienate because of civil rights. These activities frustrated moderate Republicans such as Sen. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.), who warned that the GOP should stick to “its Lincolnian tradition or lapse into a permanent minority status as the result of negativism.”
However, after Barry Goldwater’s historic defeat in the 1964 presidential election, moderates regained control of the national committee. Under the leadership of chairmen such as Ray C. Bliss (1964-1968) and Bill Brock (1976-1980), the committee refocused its attention from white Southerners to black voters, women and ethnic minorities.
Conservatives opposed these activities as pointless. For example, Pat Buchanan criticized Brock’s attempts at improving the Republican Party’s performance among black voters by noting that: “The reality is that Bill Brock can no more deliver a platform satisfactory to Jesse Jackson than can Jesse Jackson deliver a black precinct to the Republican Party of Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, and Ford. The road to Republican recovery does not lie through Harlem or Watts.”
In each of these examples, the DNC and RNC were doing their job: promoting the national party and broadening the party’s base. In doing so, the national committees took sides in intra-party conflicts and politicized their services. Rather than trying to assist all candidates of the party equally, it is quite common for the DNC and RNC to try and prop up one wing of the party — at the expense of others.
The RNC currently finds itself in a similar situation. After the 2012 election, Priebus ordered an analysis of the Republican defeat. The subsequent Growth & Opportunity Project report concluded that the party was in a sorry shape on a federal level.
Specifically, the report warned that “unless changes are made, it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future.” The RNC in particular identified the problem that “young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country. When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us.”
The RNC’s proposed solutions were equally clear: The Republican Party should “stop talking to itself” and should “campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian and gay Americans and demonstrate that we care about them, too.”
None of these proposals are likely to work with Trump as the presidential nominee. Indeed, the RNC views Trump as a threat not merely to winning the presidential election, but to its larger mission of ensuring that the Republican Party connects with broad segments of American voters – something that should help the party in all kinds of electoral contests in 2016.
To be sure, the RNC has a limited ability to stop a candidate like Trump. But nevertheless, the RNC is doing what national committees have done regularly in the past: using its power to resolve the party’s internal disagreements in the direction it thinks will help the party as a whole.