Republicans on Tuesday effectively blocked access to the ballot for potential primary challengers to President Donald Trump. It’s a bizarre, cowardly twist in the history of Wisconsin presidential primaries.
The Republican members of the Presidential Preference Selection Committee, with the support of their Democratic colleagues, voted to make Trump the only candidate in the Republican primary for president. Former Congressman Joe Walsh (R-IL) and former Massachusetts Governor William Weld both will have to get 8000 nomination signatures by the end of the month if they want to appear on the GOP primary ballot on April 7.
To give you an idea of the daunting task ahead of their campaigns, Wisconsin candidates for governor only need 2000 nomination petition signatures, and those candidates have 48 days in nice spring weather to gather them.
It could be worse. Republicans in other states, afraid of embarrassment for the president’s re-election campaign, have actually cancelled primaries rather than let Trump face even the weak competition of Walsh and Weld. But that doesn’t excuse a cowardly Republican Party of Wisconsin from their action on Tuesday.
And let’s stress just how cowardly this was. It was extremely unlikely either Walsh or Weld could pull off a victory in Wisconsin. Trump’s support among Republicans is solid with no signs that anything the president does will ever have any effect.
We’re a long way from 2016 when Wisconsin was the last state for anti-Trump forces to register their displeasure with the eventual nominee in the presidential primary. Then, Wisconsin conservatives largely united around Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to give him a last big victory before the Republican convention when Wisconsin native and then-GOP Chairman Reince Priebus effectively silenced any opposition.
Today, almost all of the voices in the Wisconsin GOP that ever dared to criticize the president are gone. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan is now living in Washington D.C. Former Governor Scott Walker is out of office and a Trump loyalist. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI05), who voted against the president using emergency powers to take funds for the southern border wall, is retiring, and he’s likely to be replaced by state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) who called on Republicans to join the “Trump Train” in 2016.
So why avoid a primary that the Trump campaign knows it can win?
One, Wisconsin is a swing state and the last thing the Trump campaign wants is any primary campaign waged against it here. If the Democrats are going to win Wisconsin, let them spend their own resources.
Two, as Ringo Starr said, “tomorrow never knows.” If elections were always predictable, then Trump wouldn’t be in the White House. An embarrassment is certainly possible, especially if former National Security Advisor John Bolton testifies at the Senate Impeachment Trial of the president.
But surely the Republican Party owes it to their voters, unlikely to cast a vote for the Democrat in November, a chance to cast a protest vote against Trump’s abhorrent personal behavior and tariff policies? Or will the Republicans only be happy when their suburban voters cast votes for former Vice President Joe Biden in November?
Also, Wisconsin has a state Supreme Court election the same day. Surely the Wisconsin GOP would want to encourage as many of its voters to go to the polls as possible, either for or against the sitting president. Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly, a conservative, will need every vote he can get when there are so many Democratic presidential candidates trying to drag Democratic voters out on Election Day.
It’s ironic that the Republican Party made the decision they did on Tuesday here in Wisconsin of all places. Wisconsin was one of the first states to strike back against the backroom deals that made presidential candidates by adopting presidential primaries at the beginning of the 20th century, a move strongly supported by the Republican Party of that time.
Now, over 100 years later, Republicans want to abandon that heritage. The room may be smoke free, but the stench of a closed-door deal is still present.
It’s especially ironic that the Trump campaign is engaging in such tactics given his campaign’s lawsuit to force California to put his name on the ballot even if the candidate fails to comply with the requirement to release his personal tax information.
It’s worth reminding Trump supporters that, had it been possible to lock Trump out of the nominating process in 2016, the Republican Party would have done so. Now to deny ballot access to Trump’s opponents within the Republican Party is not only hypocritical, it sets a bad precedent for future presidential contests.
We have no love for Weld or for Walsh. Weld is a liberal, a one-time Libertarian Party candidate for Vice President, and so ill-liked within the Republican Party his proposed ambassadorship to Mexico was blocked by conservatives in the U.S. Senate. Walsh has made a career of sounding just like Trump (or worse) and now claims to repent for his behavior.
But this unseemly behavior by the Republican Party and its representatives on the Presidential Preference Selection Committee must be called out. Trump should not be allowed to hide from democracy.
If the Republican Party wants to abandon primaries entirely, and let backroom deals decide all of the party’s future nominees, then it should state so now. Trump’s supporters would not like the results.