The Republican Party could dispense harsh discipline against GOP senators who deride or undermine President Donald Trump, using an little-known rule to pull official endorsements.
One of those senators who could lose the nod of his own party could be Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, up for re-election in 2018.
Rule 11 of the Republican National Committee bylaws allows the three RNC members from a given state to declare a presumptive nominee before the primary election of a senator. Conceivably, this could mean giving an official Republican endorsement to a primary opponent of a sitting senator. Such action against an incumbent senator would be unprecedented in recent history, but would be possible under the RNC rules.
The notion first arose on Monday, when Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel was asked what the Republican Party could do to punish Flake for his disloyalty to the president. Flake has been sharply critical of Trump in his forthcoming book, "Conscience of a Conservative," comparing the president to a carnival barker who has eroded conservatism.
Flake was elected to the House of Representatives in 2000, and then won the junior Arizona Senate seat in 2012.
Flake has long been a "NeverTrumper," refusing to support Trump during the 2016 election, and declining to support Trump's immigration enforcement measures. But his vocal and vociferous bashing of Trump in his book was his most flagrant and aggressive assault on the president of his own party yet.
Laura Ingraham, editor-in-chief of LifeZette, asked McDaniel about the "massive discontent" with Flake among GOP voters in Arizona. Ingraham asked if Flake could be denied an official endorsement in the Arizona Republican primary in 2018, when Flake is up for re-election.
"They need to have another candidate that they supported and our three RNC members would have to agree on that other candidate for Rule 11 to apply. But it is in our bylaws," Romney McDaniel said. "We're going to stay in Arizona no matter who comes out of the primary. We need to be preparing for the general [election]."
That means just three people -- a state's two national committeemen and the state party chair -- could endorse a challenger to a GOP incumbent -- allowing that candidate to be backed with party resources. Invocation of the rule is not unprecedented, but it has not been deployed in similar circumstances in recent history. Rule 11 was invoked in Michigan in 2014 when the GOP wanted to get behind an unopposed candidate early.
But even if it is conceivably possible for the party to back a Flake challenger, it appears an unlikely prospect.
Bruce Ash, one of two GOP national committeemen from Arizona, said he is not supporting such a move now.
"I will not sign a Rule 11 letter," Ash told LifeZette in an email. "Rule 11 letters should be limited to extremely rare and unusual circumstances. It is my experience that Rule 11 letters generally do not sit well with Republicans."
The other committeeman and the state party chairman in Arizona did not return messages from LifeZette.
Interestedly, one announced GOP challenger to Flake, former state Sen. Kelli Ward. Ward told LifeZette on Tuesday night that she also opposes the use of Article 11. Ward said she was concerned the Arizona Republican Party could pull its support of Flake, but then pick an establishment insider to get behind.
"I'm certainly not in with the big wigs," said Ward, who challenged Sen. John McCain in the 2016 GOP primary, and lost.
Ward, a conservative, said she is easily beating Flake in the primary polls, where his performance has been anemic of late. Ward said a recent poll by Gravis Marketing of Florida had her at 48 percent, and Flake at 31 percent.
Some Republicans expressed concern that moving against Flake would cause a backlash, empowering Flake to run against a GOP establishment that he is a part of.
"My advice, if I were asked, is that the Arizona GOP play this contested primary election -- as we do in others -- right down the middle, and assure Arizona voters (that we) will select the best nominee for the general election and ultimately coalesce to win the November general election," said Ash.
(photo credit, homepage and article images: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)