Love him or hate him, what Donald J. Trump has done this presidential election cycle is nothing short of remarkable. The Donald has essentially turned three decades of consultant-class conventional wisdom on winning a political party’s nomination upside down.
Although he has been buoyed by celebrity and name recognition, Trump has shown one can make a serious play for the presidency and not have to amass a $100 million war chest to make it into the early primaries with respectable poll numbers.
While Trump is ahead in the polls, the cycle’s top fundraiser is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and he’s within the margin of error in some national polls of being at zero. In an ironic twist, the more money Bush has spent, the more ground he has lost in the crowded field.
But what if the current national poll numbers stick and Trump emerges as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee?
It could shake up our two-party system as we know it.
If suddenly Trump is the face of the Republican Party, don’t expect everyone else who is active in national Republican politics to go along with it.
These big donors that have given millions of dollars to the likes of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio aren’t going to don “Make America Great Again” hats. They may sit this cycle out and wait for 2020. Or they might consider taking their considerable resources and start something different outside of what we currently call the Republican Party.
Longtime establishment institutions like George Will and Karl Rove are very uncomfortable with the idea of Trump carrying the Republican banner.
Would this be the moment they and those other “establishment” types take their ball and go home … to another party?
This is an intra-party civil war that has been brewing for at least six years now, going back to the start of the Tea Party movement following Barack Obama’s first-term inauguration. Obama’s pledge to fundamentally transform the country spurred an equal and opposite reaction. Although that reaction aligned itself with the Republican Party in the short term, it was a marriage destined to fail.
What would that mean for local Republican politics, specifically in a one-party state like Alabama?
Contrary to what a lot of people may think, Alabama Republican Party politics isn’t really that right wing compared to the entire right side of the political spectrum.
For example, Gov. Robert Bentley endorsed Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a moderate Republican seeking the GOP nomination who is seen as an “establishment” candidate.
Although he may want you to think otherwise for the next 11 months, Alabama’s senior U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, has hardly been a Tea Party firebrand. He is a former Democrat and is more in line with the old-school Southern legislator who has a solid record of bringing home the bacon for his state.
As for Alabama’s junior U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, he pushes the right buttons on a lot of issues for conservatives but is still a product of the establishment. While Sessions’ view of the role of the federal government is consistent with many conservatives, he’s not above voting for a less-than-conservative bill if it benefits his state. Earlier this month, Sessions voted for a $300 billion, 1,300-page highway bill that was introduced and voted on within 72 hours. Although Sessions did admit the bill wasn’t perfect, his staffers later touted how the controversial legislation would bring in money for the much-needed new Interstate 10 bridge over the Mobile River and the Northern Beltline for Birmingham.
While Alabama voters have shown they aren’t overly concerned with ideological purity, one could also argue they can look past the fiscal and size-and-scope-of-government issues as long as a candidate strikes the proper chord on social issues, as they showed by selecting former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in the previous two GOP presidential primaries.
If Trump is nominated as the GOP’s candidate with this ongoing schism at play, where would the state’s party elders go?
If history is any indication, the politics and the power structure in the state would remain the same. It’s just the labels that might change.
Up until this decade, Alabama was a state that would vote Democratic in local elections and Republican in national. In the 1964 presidential election, it was one of the six states then-Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona) carried against the incumbent Democratic candidate, President Lyndon B. Johnson. However, Montgomery was still controlled by Democrats.
That held true through the years with the exception of 1976, with Jimmy Carter, the governor of neighboring Georgia, on the ticket.
Based on that, it’s likely any pending split in national Republican Party politics would have local voters going with whichever candidate is the most conservative in national elections and whichever is going to do the most to serve the state’s local interests in statewide and local elections. That’s hardly ideological purity.
It’s just not entirely clear where a political apparatus led by Donald Trump would fall in either of those two categories.