Sept. 8, 2015 — A quiet political week ended with national Republican Party officials breathing a huge sigh of relief. Last week, Donald Trump agreed to sign the Republican National Committee pledge, committing candidates to eschew an independent candidacy if failing to win the party nomination. The language includes a statement of support for whoever becomes the GOP standard bearer. Obtaining Trump’s agreement was critical because his widely publicized contemplation about running in the general election was sure to doom the Republican nominee if he sought the presidency as an Independent.
But, it likely wasn’t the RNC chairman and leadership who carried the greatest influence with Trump. Rather, key GOP state chairmen who were beginning to draft legally binding pledges were the ones who made the difference.
The RNC pledge is not an authoritative document, and there isn’t much national party leaders can do if Trump decides to change his mind and reverse course later in the process. Ballot access, after all, is controlled by each individual state. But, state-based ballot qualifying measures and pledges do matter, and can be determinant about whether a candidate appears on a specific ballot.
Many states have what are termed as “sore loser laws”. These statutes prevent candidates who lose in partisan primaries from running as an Independent in the related general election. Most, however, do not apply to the presidential race.
The South Carolina law is an exception in that its language is broad enough to include the national contest. Therefore, Trump failing to sign their state pledge would prevent him from entering the important Palmetto State primary, a contest where early polling already places him first.
Other states where the political parties control ballot access were also pressuring Trump. Republican leaders in North Carolina and Virginia, two such states where the political parties determine ballot access, took major steps to make the pledge a condition of qualifying as a primary candidate. Texas is another state where the party determines ballot access and if they were to follow suit, and probably would have, Trump would have faced a very tough decision about whether to bypass the second largest delegate pool.
The aggregate effect of key state Republican parties coming together to force the loyalty issue made Trump’s choice quite simple: either agree to the party loyalty pledge and enter the affected primaries or, realistically, begin now to develop an Independent candidacy.
Though the national pledge is getting most of the coverage and its authors taking credit for obtaining Trump’s signature, it is the states where the local party controls the ballot, and the Republican officials in those domains, who truly forced his hand.
Rep. John Kline (R-Burnsville) announced Thursday that he will not seek an eighth term in the House next year. With an internal term limit ending his tenure as House Education & The Workforce Committee chairman after this Congress, it is not particularly surprising that the representative would decide leave Washington altogether. Kline, a career military officer, was first elected in 2002 on his third try for the House.
Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District is a highly marginal seat that encompasses the southern Minneapolis/St. Paul suburbs, and then meanders down the Mississippi River until reaching the small town of Weaver. It is one of 26 districts that voted for President Obama in 2012, but sent a Republican to Congress two years later. Of the 26 Obama Republican CDs, it is this MN-2 seat that is the president’s weakest swing. Though Obama won the district three years ago, his win margin was 49.1 – 49.0 percent, a spread of just one-tenth of a percentage point.
Without Kline in the race, this seat is in play for both parties. We can expect a spirited nomination fight from both Democrats and Republicans, and a toss-up general election.
Since the 2nd was re-drawn in 2011, Kline scored winning percentages of 54 and 56 percent in the subsequent elections, both against former state Rep. Mike Obermueller (D). MN-2 is now the 21st open seat; 11 are from the Republican column with Democrats currently holding 10.