The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A boneheaded play by the GOP

New Hampshire's Bill Gardner, the longest-serving secretary of state in the U.S., speaks to the state legislature after winning another term in Concord, N.H., last week. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

President Trump excoriated the Democratic Party in 2016 for favoring Hillary Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). So naturally he wants his party to do the same for him. Politico reports on the machinations surrounding the New Hampshire primary:

In the most far-reaching move, Donald Trump’s allies are looking to scrap the state GOP’s tradition of remaining neutral in the primary — to clear the way for an endorsement of the president. They’re also moving to install one of their own as head of the state Republican Party.
The efforts wouldn’t stop a moderate Republican like John Kasich from taking on Trump. But they are designed to shield the president from the kind of damage that a serious primary fight could do to him heading into the general election. An endorsement would provide much more than just a verbal statement of support: It would enable the New Hampshire Republican Party to throw the weight of its entire apparatus behind Trump against any GOP rival.

All of this may not dissuade potential challengers such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich (“A top strategist to Kasich said the attempt to stack the deck for the incumbent will have no bearing on whether the outgoing Ohio governor decides to run, or on his ultimate success given the significant bloc of independent voters there.”) However, it could inflict real damage on the GOP in no less than six ways.

First, no one, let alone notoriously independent New Hampshire voters, likes to be told the fix is in. That was Trump’s point in 2016. It reeks of smoke-filled rooms and establishment arrogance.

President Trump has irreversibly changed the Republican Party. The upheaval might seem unusual, but political transformations crop up throughout U.S. history. (Video: Adriana Usero, Danielle Kunitz, Robert Gebelhoff/The Washington Post)

Second, it might just as well spawn a backlash for a candidate running against the Trump Swamp. Even when the party was neutral, New Hampshire Republicans prefer a scrappy underdog (e.g., Sen. John McCain in 2008). The move is worse than ineffective; it’s counterproductive and conveys weakness, fear of competition and lack of concern about keeping independents in the fold. (If the GOP race isn’t a fair fight, why not vote in the Democratic race?)

Third, the party is acting like there is no chance Trump will be out by then or a nonviable candidate. If party insiders have any doubt, they should consult with “Individual-1.” If they block other entrants and Trump doesn’t run or has to drop out or gets indicted, what will they do?

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Fourth, the move is a gift to Democrats who would love to pull in all those independents and keep a connection with them through the general election. Sanders won the primary in a landslide in 2016 with more than 70 percent of the independents who voted in the Democratic primary

Fifth, doing this in New Hampshire builds up the importance of Iowa and of Super Tuesday races, which comes early (March 3) and includes the delegate treasure trove of California. Frankly, if other candidates do want to get in they might focus on Iowa and then skip to Nevada and on to March 3. The maneuver ironically would make New Hampshire less important than ever. (Should Trump not win, Republicans in the future might finally kick the Granite State out of the first primary slot.)

Sixth, Reince Priebus was rightly concerned about a third-party challenger (perhaps too worried to the degree he let Trump abscond with the party) in 2016. Although Kasich says he would not be deterred, he might change his mind or another challenger might say, “The heck with these people. I’m running as an independent!”

The proposed gambit is so foolhardy, and conveys such weakness on Trump’s part, that it’s hard to believe Republicans would try it. On the other hand, Trump is the head of the party and it’s his fear of competition that might determine New Hampshire’s rules. And if New Hampshire does it why not the others, and why have primaries at all?

Read more:

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Are Republicans abandoning democracy?

Catherine Rampell: Is the GOP the law and order party? Not so much.

Jennifer Rubin: Senate Republicans are responsible for the most unethical and incompetent administration ever

Dana Milbank: The Republicans’ post-midterm strategy: Thievery