Donald Trump has done lasting damage to the Republican National Committee on a number of fronts. He has undermined their authority over their own party, destroyed their election year fundraising and ruined the GOP’s already troubled brand. But now a federal court is reviewing whether or not Donald Trump has just done something that will directly affect the party’s election strategy for years to come.
On Wednesday, the Democratic National Committee sued the RNC in New Jersey federal court, claiming that the RNC was essentially aiding Trump’s efforts to intimidate people at the polls. Over the last month Trump has been increasingly vocal about the need for his supporters to go out and “watch” the polls in “certain areas.” Many, including Trump’s own supporters, have interpreted that as an open invitation to harass and intimidate minority voters in urban, Democratic-leaning polling precincts.
The RNC knows a thing or two about that kind of voter intimidation. Back in 1981 the Republican National Committee parachuted into the close race for New Jersey Governor in an attempt to aid the Republican candidate. They deployed a host of voter intimidation tactics that ranged from misleading signs about voter fraud penalties, to sending off-duty police officers to polls wearing armbands that read “Ballot Security Task Force.”
Those actions led directly to a 1982 consent decree from the federal government limiting what kinds of poll watching activities the Republican National Committee could engage in. It's that consent decree that the DNC alleges the RNC is violating by aiding Trump's efforts. And, while the decree is set to expire in 2017, according to Politico, Trump’s actions could mean that it doesn't get lifted after all, keeping the Republican Party under the federal government’s thumb for the foreseeable future.
The complaint alleges that the RNC is “supporting and enabling the efforts of the Republican candidate for President, Donald J. Trump, as well as his campaign and advisors, to intimidate and discourage minority voters from voting in the 2016 Presidential Election.” The determination of the court may ultimately hinge on the degree to which the Republican Party is associated with the campaign of their own presidential nominee. In a statement published by Politico, the RNC claimed that they do not "coordinate with the Trump campaign or any other campaign or party organization in any efforts they may make in this area."
If the consent decree were to be lifted, it could presumably allow the Republican Party access to a whole new panoply of strategies for suppressing the vote. As it stands, Republican governors and state legislators have spent the last several election cycles enacting stringent voter ID laws and other forms of legislative voter suppression designed to reduce turnout among traditionally Democratic constituencies.
If the consent decree remains in place, perhaps the Democratic Party will send Donald Trump a thank you card.