GOP 'loyalty oath' aimed at Donald Trump could backfire

Fear of Donald Trump going rogue with a third-party bid is making the Republican establishment jittery.

Charles Krupa/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during a media availability prior to a campaign stop at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, N.H., on Aug. 14, 2015.

The South Carolina GOP has one, and Republicans in Virginia and North Carolina are thinking of adopting the idea as well: a loyalty pledge for presidential candidates requiring them to support the party’s eventual nominee and not run as a third-party candidate.

The obvious target is Donald Trump, who has declined to make such a promise. Mr. Trump commands the biggest chunk of the GOP electorate – about 25 percent in the latest polls. But his negatives are high, and he faces an uphill climb to the nomination. If Trump gives up on running as a Republican, he could take his personal fortune and go independent, likely handing the election to the Democrat.

Talk of “loyalty oaths” demonstrates the Republican establishment’s discomfort with the Trump phenomenon. But some Republicans doubt it would accomplish anything, suggesting it could backfire.

“Unfortunately, I think it only feeds the beast,” says Chip Felkel, a Republican strategist based in Greenville, S.C., who is not affiliated with a presidential campaign.

“Trump is not about the GOP, and if he was, there would be no need for a loyalty pledge,” Mr. Felkel continues. “Second, it’s really not enforceable. What are you going to do, sue him? And third, if the party tries to enforce something like that, they look weak.”

The South Carolina Republican Party has long had such a pledge on its form for candidates wishing to compete in the state’s primary, the crucial third contest in the nominating process. This time, candidates have until Sept. 30 to submit the registration form, which includes the pledge, and must pay a $40,000 fee. The South Carolina primary is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 20, 2016.

The pledge states that “I hereby affirm that I generally believe in and intend to support the nominees and platform of the Republican Party in the November 8, 2016 general election.”

When asked Tuesday in Iowa about the pledge, Trump said that his campaign was “looking into it.”

“We certainly have plenty of time,” he said, according to CNN. “We’re leading every poll, we’re leading every state, from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina, polls have come in from virtually every place … so my whole desire is just fairness, and I want to run as the Republican nominee, I want to win, I think we will win.”

GOP officials in both Virginia and North Carolina are considering adopting a pledge for candidates wishing to compete in their primaries. The goal, says Virginia Republican chairman John Whitbeck, would be to motivate activists.

“You can’t win the White House without Virginia; you can’t win Virginia without all the Republicans in Virginia; and you can’t get the Republicans to turn out unless the hundreds of thousands of volunteers next year work their tails off,” Mr. Whitbeck told The Washington Post. “What they’re asking before they commit to you as a candidate: Commit to them. Be part of the team.”

Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli supports the idea of a pledge. Though in an interview with Politico, Mr. Cuccinelli suggested that the pledge would not effectively kick in until after the state’s primary.

“Donald Trump is an important candidate in the race for the White House and I don’t think he or anyone else should be blocked from running as a Republican,” Cuccinelli said. “But once the primary is over, that’s it.”

Cuccinelli also pointed out that Virginia has a “sore-loser” law, which prevents anyone who loses in a primary from appearing on the ballot later as a third-party candidate.

Both the Virginia and North Carolina primaries are scheduled for March 1, “Super Tuesday.”

Virginia, in fact, has a history with loyalty pledges. Before the 2012 presidential primaries, the commonwealth’s Republican Central Committee and Board of Elections approved a nonbinding statement that was to be signed by any voter wishing to cast a ballot in the Republican primary.

It said: “I, the undersigned, pledge that I intend to support the nominee of the Republican Party for president.”

Because Virginia does not register voters by party, Republican officials were concerned that Democrats would cross over and make mischief in their primary. But the oath caused an uproar – and the threat of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union – and it was dropped.

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