Members of the RNC leadership arranged a phone call with Hutchinson on Thursday, but the former governor himself was not part of the conversation, only a staffer. During the short call, RNC leaders refused to make any changes to the debate requirements and told staff that the committee « doesn’t deal with assumptions » about Trump’s legal fate. One of the people familiar with the call described it as « contentious ».
In a statement, RNC senior adviser Richard Walters said candidates in the GOP primary are only « asked to respect the decision of Republican primary voters and support the eventual nominee. »
« Candidates who complain about this to the press should seriously reconsider their priorities and whether they should even run, » Walters said.
While it’s unclear whether Hutchinson will meet the other qualifications for August’s debate, the back-and-forth between the campaign and the RNC highlights the conundrum in which the latter finds itself. Forcing candidates to swear loyalty to each other may appear to be exactly in the party’s interest. But with the former president’s long list of legal battles hanging over next year’s campaign, it now carries some risk, including the neutrality committee’s pledge in the primaries.
Hutchinson, who is currently polling close to 1 percent in the most recent polls, told POLITICO on Wednesday that he planned to ask the committee to change the language in the pledge. He took issue with potentially having to endorse a candidate who could be found guilty of felony charges, in the wake of Trump’s 37-count federal indictment opened earlier in the week. He said he also plans to talk to some of his key opponents about making a similar request.
« I won’t vote for him if he’s a convicted felon, » Hutchinson said in the interview. “’I will not vote for him if he is convicted of espionage, and I will not vote for him if he is (convicted of) other serious crimes. And I’m not going to support that.
“They have to put some rationality into what is said in that oath or promise,” Hutchinson continued, referring to the RNC.
The committee recently released its requirements to attend its first authorized debate, scheduled for Aug. 23 in Milwaukee on the Fox News Channel. In addition to the usual criteria around minimum polls and donor thresholds, it included signing a pledge « to support the party’s eventual nominee, » though the RNC has yet to share the precise language of that oath.
POLITICO has contacted the other declared candidates, but none have said they want the RNC to change the loyalty pledge. A spokesperson for former Vice President Mike Pence’s team didn’t immediately dismiss Hutchinson’s proposal, but said, « We want President Trump to be on the debate stage, because we think that would be a good contrast for us. »
A spokesman for Chris Christie’s campaign, meanwhile, said the former New Jersey governor had been « pretty clear about his thoughts on the pledge and any future support for Trump — condemnation or not. »
Multiple times this year, Christie has said she will not support Trump if he is the candidate. Last week Christie said he would sign the RNC pledge to discuss it, but he would only take it « as seriously as Donald Trump did eight years ago. » Trump signed a similar pledge in the 2016 election, but later said he wouldn’t necessarily pledge to endorse someone else as a candidate. When asked about such a pledge this spring, Trump would not promise to back the eventual candidate for 2024.
A rep for Larry Elder said the California-based candidate doesn’t think any changes should be made to the RNC’s loyalty pledge, while a rep for Michigan businessman Perry Johnson said Johnson intends to support the candidate regardless of a pledge of loyalty. In a statement to POLITICO, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who entered the race Wednesday, said Trump is deemed innocent until proven guilty and that it would be « foolish » for the NCR to make changes to its protocol at this point.
In addition to the loyalty pledge, candidates must reach 1% in at least three polls starting next month, raise 40,000 individual donors for their campaigns, agree not to participate in debates that the RNC does not sanction, and enter into a data sharing with the national party. They have until two days before the debate to meet the criteria.
Some lower-rated and lesser-known candidates in the industry, including Hutchinson, are struggling to meet minimum donor and poll thresholds. Hutchinson on Wednesday declined to say how many donors he had secured in his offer of him, but noted that the RNC donor requirements were exponentially greater than the number he needed in his successful statewide races. He won his last gubernatorial race with 65% of the vote and fewer than 3,000 donors.
« We have a way to go, » Hutchinson said.
The RNC has made Trump’s legal troubles the subject of some of its recent fundraising appeals, though the committee sent fewer indictment-themed emails and messages from Trump’s federal case last week than it did when it addressed New York state charges earlier this year around allegedly hush-hush cash payments to a porn star.
But the themes of the emails echo those that the Trump campaign itself has used to defend the former president. They asked recipients to judge for themselves whether the allegation is « political revenge » under the guise of a poll, while others include sentences like, « Our borders are overflowing with illegal immigrants, but radical Democrats have focused their attention on the impeach Trump AGAIN. »
Saul Anuzis, the former Michigan state GOP chairman and former RNC presidential candidate, said he does not believe the committee’s neutrality in the primary is in question, despite the RNC speaking out against Trump’s charge.
“Politically, I don’t think there’s any reason to distance ourselves in any way,” Anuzis said, referring to the RNC’s fundraising from Trump cases and maintaining the loyalty pledge.
« If any other candidate gets attacked, I think they’d probably do the same thing, » he added. « It may not be as effective, but I think it’s a legitimate problem. »
Jessica Piper and Adam Wren contributed to this report.