WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump will be the only choice on the ballot in Minnesota's Republican presidential primary, even though he's not the only candidate.
The state Republican Party has decided voters won't have any alternatives.
Its chairwoman, Jennifer Carnahan, sent a letter to the Minnesota Secretary of State on Oct. 24 outlining the party's "determination of candidates" for the March 3 Republican primary ballot. Trump is the only name listed.
Absent are three other Republicans who, while long shots, are prominent political names running active campaigns: former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois.
"The idea that we're taking our cues from North Korea or the Soviet Union in terms of voter access and voter participation just seems weird to me," Sanford said in an interview Thursday. Minnesota voters are the biggest losers in the party decision, he said, adding that he suspects that state party leaders are worried a contested primary would show Trump isn't as popular as he claims.
Lucy Caldwell, Walsh's campaign manager, called it "appalling but unsurprising news, given the hold that Trump's cult of personality has over some of these state party leaders."
The state GOP released a statement from Carnahan, which said: "President Trump is extremely popular in Minnesota and my job as chairwoman is to make sure we deliver our 10 electoral votes to the president on November 3, 2020."
The Weld campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
State law leaves it up to the political parties to determine which candidate names are placed on the presidential nomination primary ballots. The deadline for that filing is Dec. 31, meaning the Minnesota GOP submitted its ballot more than two months earlier than necessary.
The political parties are also allowed to request a space for voters to identify write-in candidates, or a space for voters to choose that delegates to the national party convention remain uncommitted. The state Republican Party made neither of those requests, said a spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office.
State law says the ballot cannot be changed once it's set.
It's not unusual for political parties to push back against internal dissent to a sitting president. While primary challenges to presidents face long odds, they can reveal the incumbent's weaknesses. In 1992, for example, Pat Buchanan won 24% of the Minnesota GOP vote when he challenged President George H.W. Bush. Later that year, Bush lost the presidency to Bill Clinton.
In 2016, Trump finished third in Minnesota's Republican presidential caucus, trailing Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. In the general election, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson — a former Republican governor of New Mexico who had Weld as his running mate — got 4% of the vote. Trump lost the state to Hillary Clinton by less than 2%.
The Trump campaign hopes to win Minnesota next year, something a Republican presidential candidate hasn't done since 1972. A September Minnesota Poll showed him trailing all the leading Democratic candidates.
State GOP parties in South Carolina, Nevada, Kansas and Arizona voted last month to scrap their presidential primaries in 2020 to foil Trump rivals. In South Carolina, two Republicans, including a former congressman, have sued in an effort to reinstate the presidential primary.
Sanford was governor of South Carolina from 2003 to 2011 and also served separate six-year stretches in the U.S. House. Walsh is a former Tea Party activist who served one two-year House term. Weld was governor of Massachusetts from 1991 to 1997.
All have been highly critical of Trump's character and job performance.
Sanford said he sees little recourse for his exclusion from the Minnesota ballot, but he'll continue to critique Trump, especially in states where GOP voters will have a choice.
"There is a creeping and sizable disconnect between what this president promised and what he's delivered," Sanford said.