WASHINGTON (AP) – Worried about a potential Republican primary challenge, US President Donald Trump’s campaign has launched a state-by-state effort to prevent an intraparty fight that could spill over into the general-election campaign.
The nascent initiative has been an intense focus in recent weeks and includes taking steps to change state party rules, crowd out potential rivals and quell any early signs of opposition that could embarrass the president.
It is an acknowledgement that Trump, who effectively hijacked the Republican Party in 2016, hasn’t completely cemented his grip on the GOP and, in any event, is not likely to coast to the 2020 GOP nomination without some form of opposition. While any primary challenge would almost certainly be unsuccessful, Trump aides are looking to prevent a repeat of the convention discord that highlighted the electoral weaknesses of Presidents George HW Bush and Jimmy Carter in their failed re-election campaigns.
To defend against that prospect, Trump’s campaign has deployed what it calls an unprecedented effort to monitor and influence local party operations. It has used endorsements, lobbying and rule changes to increase the likelihood that only loyal Trump activists make it to the Republican nominating convention in August 2020.
Bill Stepien, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, calls it all a “process of ensuring that the national convention is a television commercial for the president for an audience of 300 million and not an internal fight”.
One early success for Trump’s campaign was in Massachusetts, where Trump backer and former state Representative Jim Lyons last month defeated the candidate backed by Massachusetts Republican Governor Charlie Baker, a Trump critic, to serve as the state party chairman.
“We have a constant focus on tracking everything regarding this process,” Stepien said. “Who’s running, what their level of support for the president is and what their vote counts are.”
The campaign’s work extends beyond state party leadership races, which are taking place in many key states in the coming weeks. Trump’s team plans to organise at county and state caucuses and conventions over the next 18 months to elevate pro-Trump leaders and potential delegates. Ahead of the convention, it aims to have complete control of the convention agenda, rules and platform — and to identify any potential trouble-makers well in advance.
That sort of organisation is a leap from Trump’s 2016 delegate operation, which faced challenges by anti-Trump activists in the party. Trump aides say it’s the most aggressive effort ever launched to protect an incumbent.
Nick Trainer, a White House veteran named last month as the campaign’s director of delegates and party organisation, is leading a team of three to coordinate with state and local parties in the run-up to the convention.
Yet the efforts to protect Trump simply highlight his vulnerability, said an adviser to one potential Republican opponent.
“They’re not talented, but they’re not idiotic. They rightfully understand that he could be badly damaged or lose in a nomination battle. They’re doing too much. It looks weak,” said John Weaver, a senior adviser to former Ohio Governor John Kasich, one of the few high-profile Republicans seriously contemplating a primary challenge.
Trump’s campaign is closely monitoring the intentions of Kasich and other potential primary challengers, and aides said they expect someone to mount a campaign for the nomination. But they insist their efforts are not borne out of fear that Trump is vulnerable.
Primary challenges against incumbent presidents have never been successful in the modern era. And Trump’s poll numbers among Republican voters have proven to be resilient. Still, his aides said they are taking lessons from one-term leaders who lost their re-elections after embarrassing nominating fights.
Those in the past who challenged a president both distracted the incumbent from the November campaign and offered a voice to intraparty discontent, seeding weaknesses that were exploited by a general-election rival.