Members of RNC leadership arranged a call with Hutchinson on Thursday, but the former governor himself did not take part in the conversation, only a staff member. During the brief call, RNC leaders declined to make any changes to debate requirements and told the staffer the committee is “not dealing with hypotheticals” on Trump’s legal fate. One of the individuals with knowledge of the call described it as “contentious.”
In a statement, RNC senior adviser Richard Walters said the GOP primary candidates are only “being asked to respect the decision of Republican primary voters and support the eventual nominee.”
“Candidates who are complaining about this to the press should seriously reconsider their priorities and whether they should even be running,” Walters said.
Though it’s unclear if Hutchinson would meet the other qualifications for the debate in August, the back and forth between the campaign and RNC highlights the conundrum the latter is in. Forcing candidates to pledge loyalty to one another may appear to be squarely in the party’s interest. But with the former president’s lengthy list of legal battles hovering over next year’s campaign it now carries some risk, including to the committee’s commitment to neutrality in the primary.
Hutchinson, who is currently polling at about 1 percent in most recent polls, told POLITICO on Wednesday that he intended to ask the committee to adjust the language in the pledge. He took issue with having to potentially support a nominee who could be found guilty of felonies, in the wake of Trump’s 37-count federal indictment unsealed earlier in the week. He said he also planned to speak with some of his fellow primary opponents about making a similar request.
“I’m not going to vote for him if he’s a convicted felon,” Hutchinson said in the interview. “‘I’m not going to vote for him if he’s convicted of espionage, and I’m not going to vote for him if he’s (convicted of) other serious crimes. And I’m not going to support him.”
“They need to put a little rationality to what is said in that oath or that pledge,” Hutchinson continued, referring to the RNC.
The committee recently released its requirements to participate in its first sanctioned debate — scheduled for Aug. 23 in Milwaukee on Fox News Channel. Alongside usual criteria about minimum polling and donor thresholds, it included signing a pledge “to support the eventual party nominee,” though the RNC has not yet shared the precise language of that oath.
POLITICO reached out to the other declared candidates, but none said they wanted the RNC to amend the loyalty pledge. A spokesperson for former Vice President Mike Pence’s team did not immediately dismiss Hutchinson’s proposal, but said: “We want President Trump on the debate stage, because we think this would be a good contrast for us.”
A spokesperson for Chris Christie’s campaign, meanwhile, said the former New Jersey governor has been “pretty clear on his thoughts around the pledge and any future support for Trump — conviction or not.”
Repeatedly this year, Christie has said he will not support Trump if he is the nominee. Last week Christie said he would sign the RNC’s pledge in order to debate, but would only take it “as seriously as Donald Trump did eight years ago.” Trump in the 2016 election signed a similar pledge, but later said he would not necessarily commit to supporting someone else as the nominee. Asked about such a pledge this spring, Trump would not promise to back the eventual nominee for 2024.
A representative for Larry Elder said the California-based candidate does not believe any change should be made to the RNC’s loyalty pledge, while one for Michigan businessman Perry Johnson said Johnson intends to support the nominee regardless of a loyalty pledge. In a statement to POLITICO, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who entered the race on Wednesday, said Trump is presumed innocent until proven guilty and it would be “foolish” for the RNC to make any changes to its protocol at this point.
In addition to the loyalty pledge, candidates must hit 1 percent in at least three polls beginning next month, amass 40,000 individual donors to their campaigns, agree not to participate in any debates the RNC doesn’t sanction and enter a data-sharing agreement with the national party. They have until two days before the debate to meet the criteria.
Some lower-polling and lesser-known candidates in the field, including Hutchinson, are struggling to reach minimum donor and polling thresholds. Hutchinson on Wednesday declined to say how many donors he had secured in his bid, but noted that the RNC donor requirements were exponentially larger than the number he needed in his successful statewide races. He won his last gubernatorial race with 65 percent of the vote — and fewer than 3,000 donors.
“We’ve got a ways to go,” Hutchinson said.
The RNC has made Trump’s legal woes the subject of some of its recent fundraising appeals, though the committee has sent fewer indictment-themed emails and texts since Trump’s federal case last week compared to when he faced New York state charges earlier this year around alleged hush money payments to a porn star.
But the themes of the emails echo the ones the Trump campaign itself has used in rallying to the former president’s defense. They have asked recipients to judge for themselves whether the prosecution is “political vengeance” under the guise of a poll, while others include sentences such as, “Our borders are overflowing with illegals, but radical Democrats have focused their attention on indicting Trump AGAIN.”
Saul Anuzis, the former Michigan state GOP chair and a past candidate for RNC chair, said he does not believe the committee’s neutrality in the primary is in question, despite the RNC speaking out against Trump’s indictment.
“Politically, I don’t think there’s any reason to distance themselves in any way,” Anuzis said, referring to the RNC fundraising off the Trump cases and keeping the loyalty pledge in place.
“If any other candidate were being attacked, I think they would probably do the same thing,” he added. “It might not be as effective, but I think it’s a legitimate issue.”
Jessica Piper and Adam Wren contributed to this report.