Donald Trump is not an incumbent. But Republican leaders will have to decide if they're going to treat the most influential member of their party that way should he announce a third presidential bid.
If Trump decides to run, the Republican National Committee, state and county chairs, and fundraisers will be left to determine whether the leader of their party — who isn’t currently president — should, in fact, be treated as an incumbent president. Trump’s popularity, his influence on the base, and yes, the fact that he’s the last Republican president to hold office will make structuring an equitable primary complicated.
"I mean, we do see him as an incumbent,” Republican Indian River County Chair Jay Kramer told BuzzFeed News. The county, Florida’s seventh wealthiest (and among the top 5% wealthiest per capita in the nation), encompasses Vero Beach and attracts an affluent donor base. “I mean, you know, Trump, for the most part when it comes to fundraising, I mean, we can't say no to the guy," he added.
This problem isn’t isolated to Trump’s home state. If he runs — and he has consistently suggested he will, including at CPAC last weekend — Republican officials nationwide will have to navigate the first Republican presidential campaign from a former president in more than a century. The RNC continuing to pay a portion of Trump’s legal fees a year after he left office indicates how close Trump and the Republican brand remain. But this week, the RNC told BuzzFeed News each 2024 presidential candidate would have equal access to its resources, including a $350 million voter file database the organization has been cultivating since 2012.
“We will remain neutral,” an RNC spokesperson said. A spokesperson for Trump did not comment on the party's posture for this story.
Republican chairs in Iowa and New Hampshire are in a particularly complicated position, as their first-in-the-nation status weighs heavily on their process’s fairness. As it stands, Iowa holds the first caucus in the election cycle. New Hampshire follows with the first primary.
“I've already made the public statement: The Iowa Republican Party is neutral,” Iowa State Chair Jeff Kaufmann told BuzzFeed News during a phone interview. “Now does that mean I'm not going to stand up for the former president and his policies? Absolutely, I will. I will, you know, speak and introduce him and say wonderful things at a Trump rally, but at the same time, I spent an entire day with Tom Cotton going up and down the Mississippi River.”
Some party officials BuzzFeed News spoke with described the problems of neutrality and incumbency as unusual with a lot of moving parts — complications that parties have not faced much since the 1970s, given the low number of two-term presidents. For instance, if Trump were to declare and there was only one other candidate who is not actively campaigning, that would be a different situation than a more traditional field of several senators or governors campaigning in the early states.
For New Hampshire chair Stephen Stepanek, who dubbed his state’s primary season the “Woodstock for political junkies,” fairness means “everyone is given a level playing field” even if they are relatively unknown and not well-funded. He said he expects all candidates to participate in the state’s famous “dinners” that draw voters to more intimate settings, much like the time he said he saw George W. Bush with 30 other people in a firehouse in Milford, New Hampshire.
Stepanek said Trump will be given the “respect of the former president” and expects certain accommodations will be made because of Secret Service protection for him. “But other than that, he will be treated as any other candidate for the Republican nomination here in New Hampshire.”
Still, some members of the RNC recognize that there are people in the organization who could favor Trump. And even though he’s not the president, Republicans who oppose Trump risk a public chastising from the former president or, at best, a passive scolding from a fellow colleague.
“I have been advocating for fairness, fairness all along,” New Hampshire RNC member Juliana Bergeron told BuzzFeed News. Bergeron was one of a minority of RNC members who voted against censuring Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger last month during the RNC winter meeting in Salt Lake City. “And I've been told by a couple of other members on the RNC that you know, the way I voted on a couple of things, that ‘the president won't like that.’ My question was: ‘Which president?’
“You know, it was one thing for Trump to have that kind of control when he was the incumbent, but now he's not the incumbent,” Bergeron added. “So we have to welcome every single candidate who wants to come to New Hampshire and be fair.”
In Alabama, which has been one of the states to vote on the packed early primary Super Tuesday, fairness for the party means equal access to any events and potential promotional items the state party sponsors.
“Obviously, Alabama has a special relationship with Donald Trump,” Alabama GOP Chair John Wahl told BuzzFeed News. “People in Alabama love him. I think he would easily win our primary, but we would treat — the Republican Party — would treat all candidates equally in the primary.”