Opinion: The Republican presidential primary has been nothing but a giant grift

2024 Republican presidential candidates Asa Hutchinson, from left, Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Senator Tim Scott and Doug Burgum during the Republican primary presidential debate hosted by Fox News in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, US, on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. Republican presidential contenders are facing off in their first debate of the primary season, minus frontrunner Donald Trump, who continues to lead his GOP rivals by a double-digit margin. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Six of the eight candidates in the Aug. 23 GOP debate said they would support former President Donald Trump as their party candidate, even if he was convicted in a court of law. (Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images)
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Aug. 23, 2023. That’s the day the Republican presidential primary ended.

Let’s review: Former Vice President Mike Pence officially dropped out on Oct. 28. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott would follow on Nov. 12. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum dropped out on Dec. 4. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie withdrew on Jan. 10 followed by former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Jan. 16. Vivek Ramaswamy dropped out last week after his poor showing in the Iowa caucuses, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis backed out of the race on Sunday.

Nikki Haley remains standing for now. But her eventual exit, like the rest of the GOP herd of candidates, could have been predicted on Aug. 23. That was the night of the first Republican primary debate, which Donald Trump blew off as completely inconsequential. He was, of course, right.

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That night, the eight candidates on stage were asked a very simple question: “If former President Trump is convicted in a court of law, would you still support him as your party’s choice? Please raise your hand if you would.” Haley, Scott, Burgum, Ramaswamy, DeSantis and Pence all raised their hands. Only the longshots Hutchinson and Christie kept their hands down.

From that day forward, it was obvious that the would-be “Trump without the baggage” wannabes were in effect defrauding their backers and donors, asking them for money and support when it was clear that they weren’t about to dethrone Trump.

Not only did they lack the fortitude to defeat him, but they also weren’t even going to try. Week after week they tiptoed around Trump, contorting in every which way to avoid landing any real punches on him, fearing his wrath and the wrath of his supporters. They knew they couldn’t exist politically in the GOP without Trump; he would always be their foundation. So they tried to not antagonize him, fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. In fact, they spent a lot of time defending him.

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If being convicted of committing a federal crime isn’t disqualifying, then what possible rationale would any of these challengers have to convince Republican primary voters to vote for someone else?

From this point forward, these campaigns were nothing more than a giant grift. At best, they were a farcical charade designed to compete for a spot in the Trump Cabinet. At worst, they were an exercise in vanity, a last-ditch effort to cling to one last morsel of relevancy before exiting stage left and disappearing into obscurity, never to be heard from again, I hope.

Quite frankly, every single person who was asked to contribute money to candidates who had no intention of actually winning the nomination should demand a refund. It makes you wonder how their big fundraising meetings and speeches really went down. Ask yourself, if a candidate came to you and made this pitch, would you be inclined to cut a check?

Read more: Nikki Haley's best — and perhaps last — chance to beat Trump is next week in New Hampshire

“I’m running for the Republican nomination for president and I’d like your financial support. I want you to know upfront I have no intention of actually going on offense and contrasting myself with the front-runner. In fact, I’m going to do everything I can to avoid even speaking his name. I will allow him to mock me and take shots at me, but I won’t really fight back. I’ll ignore the fact that he’s been indicted 91 times and actually come to his defense when pressed about his legal difficulties. I’ll parrot his attacks against President Biden and do my very best to pander to his core audience. But I will not speak ill of him, and if I do, it’ll be at the last second when there is no hope for actual victory. Now, would you please give me your money?”

That in a nutshell has been the Republican presidential primary. Nobody running in the 2024 cycle seems to have heeded any of the lessons from the 2016 primary. Is it any surprise that the result turned out to be the same?

The simple truth is Donald Trump dominated a field that had no real desire to keep him out of the presidency. He was able to dismantle all of his follower-rivals without ever having to leave the courthouse.

Kurt Bardella is a contributing writer to Opinion. He is a Democratic strategist and a former senior advisor for Republicans on the House Oversight Committee. @KurtBardella

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.