How do you prevent lingering bad blood from a messy Republican primary fight and keep GOP candidates focused on defeating a Democrat in November?
Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson thinks he has the answer: He’s asking Republican candidates running for the state’s other Senate seat this year to sign a pledge declaring that if they lose the primary, they will “endorse the 2018 Republican nominee regardless of who it is and do everything in my power to assist them in defeating Senator Baldwin.” Candidates also pledge to conduct their campaigns “in a manner that is respectful of my fellow Republican candidates and will focus on achieving victory in November, ensuring that whichever candidate earns the nomination is in the strongest position possible to defeat Senator [Tammy] Baldwin.”
The Republican party of Wisconsin is giving the pledge teeth. Johnson will serve as chairman of the “Grassroots Endorsement Process,” which will culminate in about 2,500 delegates voting to endorse a candidate at the party’s convention sometime before the August 14 primary. Candidates who sign the pledge will be eligible to receive “lists that will be crucial to earning the support of grassroots conservatives” at the convention, according to a party press release.
Two of the leading candidates, state senator Leah Vukmir and businessman Kevin Nicholson, have already signed the pledge, and prospective candidate Eric Hovde, a businessman who received almost 31 percent of the vote in the 2012 primary, has said he’ll sign the pledge if he decides to run.
Johnson’s comments about the pledge are not subtle about the senator’s stance toward certain PACs and out-of-state groups. “We’ve all witnessed what happens when Washington, D.C.–based ‘political experts’ of all kinds get involved in U.S. Senate races,” Johnson declared in a written statement. “The stakes are simply too high to let national outsiders meddle with our proven record of success. We must always remember that we are fighting for our freedom, and it is a fight we absolutely must win.”
After the debacle of Roy Moore’s campaign, which cost Republicans a usually safe Senate seat in Alabama, it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where the pledge becomes a problem — requiring candidates to endorse a primary winner with some terrible scandal or disqualifying feature. But Wisconsin Republicans have a good record of weeding out the gadflies, nominating serious conservative candidates, and unifying behind them going forward. No Republican challenged Johnson in 2016, and Scott Walker had no serious primary challenge in 2014.
But that’s not to say primaries never do damage to later general-election campaigns. Some analysts wonder if Tommy Thompson’s unsuccessful 2012 Senate bid was hampered by his hard primary fight against Hovde, former congressman Mark Neumann, and sssembly speaker Jeff Fitzgerald. At that year’s state convention, no candidate earned enough votes to win the party’s pre-primary endorsement. And while he lost the primary by an overwhelming margin in 2016 and made no real impact in the general election, alt-right bomb-thrower Paul Nehlen fumed after his primary loss about U.S. House speaker Paul Ryan “backstabbing our [presidential] nominee.”
“It wouldn’t be accurate to say Wisconsin Republicans are reacting to what has happened in other states or here at home, but it would be accurate to say we’ve been searching for an antidote for a long time,” said a Wisconsin Republican familiar with the plan. “State parties — Republican or Democrat — that aren’t considering how to address these things may find 2018 more chaotic that it’s already likely to be.”
Of course, it’s one thing to get a candidate to sign a unity pledge, but another thing to get them to honor it after they’ve lost a hard-fought primary.
“The enforcement mechanism is the only real kind in a primary — a uniquely unified grassroots movement that candidates will want to remain endeared to, whether they win now or want to win later,” said the Wisconsin Republican familiar with the plan. “The [state] party could threaten things, but nothing would hold up post-primary like accountability to the grassroots that has made these victories possible. [The candidates and potential candidates] know that.”
Recent history offers some high-profile examples of Republican candidates who talked a good game about unity until push came to shove.
Recent history offers some high-profile examples of Republican candidates who talked a good game about unity until push came to shove and they found themselves losing a nomination they thought they would win. In 2010, then–Florida governor Charlie Crist famously broke his promise to run as a Republican in the Senate race and ran an independent bid against Marco Rubio (and lost). In 2013, Virginia’s Republican lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling, realized he would not beat attorney general Ken Cuccinelli at the state nominating convention, mulled an independent bid, refused to endorse Cuccinelli, and then tried to persuade an influential business PAC to endorse Democrat Terry McAuliffe. (McAuliffe ultimately won.)
Back in the 2016 cycle, Donald Trump signed a pledge to support the Republican nominee, then told Anderson Cooper during a debate that he didn’t feel obligated to support the nominee anymore. Obviously this became moot when Trump won the nomination, but then Texas senator Ted Cruz came close to violating the pledge. He urged the audience at the GOP convention in July to “vote your conscience,” before later endorsing Trump in September.
Unity pledges work only if candidates think it’s important to keep their word, and sadly, politics attracts more than its share of unhinged narcissists who, once defeated, keep finding new reasons to believe it wasn’t really a legitimate defeat. (Roy Moore never conceded Alabama’s Senate race.)
But a blatantly broken pledge is easy fodder for attacks from future primary rivals, so perhaps Johnson’s pledge idea will indeed keep Republicans on their best behavior in the coming primary season. Considering all the other challenges the GOP is likely to face in the midterms, they can’t spare much time and energy worrying about whether major competitors will honor the primary results.