Trump primary threats could put RNC in a bind

Trump primary threats could put RNC in a bind
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The Republican National Committee’s (RNC) rules largely prevent it from taking sides in a primary, a policy that could keep the national party out of internal fights as President Trump threatens to support a primary challenge to at least one GOP incumbent.

But complex campaign finance laws allow the party to be the arbiter of some National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) spending, meaning that party officials could still have some power over primary decisions.

That ambiguity could present an interesting challenge for the party if Trump follows through on his threats to back primary challengers. The RNC could be forced to decide whether to approve spending on a battle between incumbent senators in Arizona and Nevada on one side and Trump-backed opponents on the other.

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Trump has made clear his distaste for Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeSchumer recruiting top-notch candidate for McCain Senate seat The Hill's Morning Report — Trump eyes wall money options as shutdown hits 21 days Poll: Sanders most popular senator, Flake least MORE (R-Ariz.), who vocally criticized him throughout the presidential election and recently wrote a book calling on the party to take a tougher stance against Trump. Last week, the president tweeted encouraging words about Flake’s primary challenger and blasted the senator, without using his name, at his Tuesday rally in Phoenix. On Wednesday, he took to Twitter again to call Flake "weak on crime & border."

The president’s relationship with Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerTrump’s shifting Cabinet to introduce new faces Trump's most memorable insults and nicknames of 2018 Progressive strategist says changing demographics will help Dems MORE (R-Nev.) is more complex. Trump joked about Heller losing his reelection campaign during a White House meeting when Heller was unsure how he would vote over the GOP’s healthcare plan, and the outside group backing Trump's agenda briefly launched a campaign to pressure him on the issue. But during Wednesday remarks in Nevada, Trump thanked Heller for attending.  

So as Republicans keep a watchful eye on whether Trump will go to bat for a primary challenger, an obscure campaign finance practice could put the RNC in a bind.

The issue comes down to coordinated federal expenditures, which encompasses money spent by national party organizations, like the RNC and the NRSC, in direct consultation with campaigns.

Most campaign spending is done independently and is not subject to as much scrutiny. But since this type of spending is coordinated with campaigns, the Federal Election Commission caps how much national party organizations can spend in each state.  

To make sure that the groups don’t accidentally exceed the cap, the RNC serves as the unofficial steward of that spending, signing off on any dollars spent against that cap.

The national party has historically given the Senate and House campaign committees full control over those funds. An RNC official told The Hill that the national party typically signs over all of its coordinated spending authorization to the NRSC to let the Senate committee decide the best way to spend the money.

But the authorization isn’t always turnkey. In 2016, the RNC briefly withheld the NRSC’s spending approval in a handful of states in a debate over spending in Illinois, one Republican familiar with the discussions told The Hill.  

And this year’s NRSC request to spend $350,000 of coordinated dollars in Alabama’s special election primary didn’t come easily either.  

The NRSC is backing Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.), the former state attorney general appointed when Trump selected Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsOvernight Health Care: Thousands more migrant children may have been separated | Senate rejects bill to permanently ban federal funds for abortion | Women's March to lobby for 'Medicare for All' Acting AG Whitaker's wife defends him in lengthy email to journalist Watchdog: Thousands more migrant children separated from parents than previously known MORE as his attorney general 

The RNC has remained officially neutral in the race, first in the initial primary, where Strange ran against former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and Rep. Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksHouse Republicans call for moving State of the Union to Senate chamber CNN anchor spars with GOP rep who accuses CNN of 'misleading the public': 'What's the emergency?' Pence seeks GOP unity, urging lawmakers to 'stand strong' with Trump MORE, and now in Strange’s runoff against Moore. 

National party rules stipulate that it can’t back a primary candidate unless it has the unanimous backing of the three state RNC members.

Republican sources familiar with the discussions confirmed to The Hill that it took far longer than usual for the RNC to approve the spendinig on Strange’s behalf, despite pressure from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDACA recipient claims Trump is holding ‘immigrant youth hostage’ amid quest for wall Former House Republican: Trump will lose the presidency if he backs away from border security Pence quotes MLK in pitch for Trump's immigration proposal MORE (R-Ky.).

Politico first reported the contentious negotiations between the two sides.

But the RNC’s power to approve the NRSC’s spending, which it did after the unexpected delay, meant that the national party did play a small role in authorizing money spent by Strange’s allies.

Republicans who spoke with The Hill don’t see the approval as violating the party’s neutrality pledge, since the national party’s role in spending approval is informal and only meant to ensure compliance. And the money spent in Alabama belonged to the NRSC, not the RNC, further insulating the national party from taking a position in the primary.

That decision didn’t sit well with some Alabama Republicans, including one of the state’s three Republican National Committee members.

Paul Reynolds, the state’s national committeeman, told The Hill that while the result frustrated him, the ordeal hasn’t affected his faith in RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, who he said kept in contact with the Alabama committee members during the process.

“We were disappointed — the part that makes me angry is that she was pressured by the Senate to do it,” he said.

"The Alabama delegation, all three of us, we trust her and we have faith in her ability,” he added. “If she says the moon is blue, the moon is blue.”

In Alabama, both the NRSC and Trump backed Strange, averting a clash between the Senate GOP’s campaign arm and the president. But the practice raises questions about how the RNC might deal with a similar situation in Arizona and Nevada, two states where Trump has floated the idea of backing a primary challenger to a Republican incumbent.

Republicans generally believe that Heller will make it through his primary without too much trouble. But in Arizona, the specter of Trump endorsing Flake’s primary opponent, former state Sen. Kelli Ward, raises the question of whether the RNC will approve coordinated spending to shore up their incumbent and how Trump might react.

This cycle, the coordinated spending caps in Arizona and Nevada are $515,900 and $220,300, respectively. 

If Trump tries to take out Flake, that would force the RNC to choose between following its regular strategy and deferring to a Senate campaign committee that supports its incumbents or step in on behalf of a White House that expects the national party to follow its president. 

It’s possible that the RNC could eventually ask the NRSC not to spend money in primaries where Trump has backed a challenger. The coordinated spending caps apply to both the primary and general elections, offering the NRSC a chance to reserve its spending for a general election and avoid the controversy altogether.

But that ask could inflame tension with the campaign committee if Flake or Heller faces a credible challenge.

Right now, most Republicans feel that Ward and Heller challenger Danny Tarkanian would be major liabilities in a general election. So if either challenger catches fire in the lead up to the primary, many in the upper echelons of the GOP will want the party to circle the wagons around the incumbent.

Arizona Republicans who spoke with The Hill warned the RNC against making any move that could appear like choosing sides in that primary.

“Even by a legal definition, where they say that it’s aboveboard and neutral just to facilitate the spending, that’s correct. But it doesn’t mean it will be perceived well by the base,” said Robert Graham, the former Arizona state party chairman who is mulling his own primary challenge, told The Hill.

“I just think right now the optics are such that the RNC should be cautious.”