WASHINGTON – Presidential candidate Ben Carson threatened Friday to leave the Republican Party in what would be a nightmare scenario for the party, which is trying to recapture the White House in 2016.
Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who strongly appeals to many Christian conservatives, surprised the political world with his emergence as a top contender for the Republican presidential nomination. He has slipped in recent polls behind front-runner Donald Trump, but an independent bid that siphoned even a few percentage points away from the party’s nominee could make it all but impossible for the Republican candidate to win election in November.
Carson and Trump have upended the Republican race with unorthodox campaigns that have tapped into voter frustration with establishment politicians — a contrast with the Democratic side, which has largely coalesced behind the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. A third-party run by Carson or Trump would be a worst-case scenario for the Republicans.
Carson lashed out at Republican leaders who discussed the possibility of a “brokered convention” to choose a nominee if no consensus candidate emerges by the time the party holds its national convention in mid-July. The first state-by-state primary contests will begin in less than two months.
The Washington Post first reported Thursday that during a recent private dinner, a group including Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell addressed Trump’s sustained strength and the possibility that a consensus nominee might not emerge before convention.
“If this was the beginning of a plan to subvert the will of the voters and replace it with the will of the political elite, I assure you Donald Trump will not be the only one leaving the party,” Carson said in a statement that referenced Trump’s repeated threats to leave the party if treated “unfairly.”
“I pray that the report in the Post this morning was incorrect,” Carson added. “If it is correct, every voter who is standing for change must know they are being betrayed. I won’t stand for it.”
Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer responded, “His prayers have been answered,” adding that it is ultimately the voters who will decide on the Republican nominee.
Spokesman Doug Watts said Carson was appalled at reports suggesting that Republican leaders were trying to manipulate the party’s presidential nominating process. He acknowledged that Carson, like Trump and the rest of Republican field, had signed a pledge not to launch a third-party bid.
“The pledge isn’t meaningless,” Watts said. “But he signed the pledge based on everybody playing by the rules.”
At least one attendee at the private dinner, which is a regular gathering of leading Republicans in Washington, told The Associated Press that suggestions of manipulation by party leaders were dramatically exaggerated. There was brief discussion of the logistical challenges of running a national convention without a presumptive nominee, the attendee said.
Past practice gives one presidential candidate control of convention planning when he or she emerges as the party’s nominee earlier in the year. Party officials agreed during the private dinner to review contingency plans should multiple candidates remain viable leading into the July convention, according to the same attendee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss a private meeting.
While unlikely, the possibility of a brokered convention is a common topic of conversation for political operatives examining the turbulent 2016 election season.
Such a scenario would play out if none of the Republican candidates accumulate the necessary number of delegates in the state-based primaries by the convention.
The last time a brokered convention played out was in 1976.