In what would be a nightmare scenario for the GOP, presidential candidate Ben Carson threatened Friday to leave the Republican Party amid reports of deepening concerns from GOP officials about the splintered 2016 electorate.
The retired neurosurgeon lashed out at Republican leaders who discussed the possibility of a "brokered convention" during a recent private dinner in Washington. The Washington Post first reported Thursday that the group, including Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, addressed the sustained strength of billionaire business Donald Trump and the possibility that a consensus nominee might not emerge before the party's mid-July national convention in Cleveland.
"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 GOP 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's ultimately the voters who will decide on the Republican nominee.
A third-party run by Carson or Trump would be a worst-case scenario for the GOP. While Carson is slipping in recent polls, 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 nominee to win the general election.
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, 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 mid-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 time the GOP holds its national convention in mid-July.
The last time a brokered convention played out was in 1976.
Meanwhile, the clock is already ticking for those considering leaving the GOP.
Texas has a May 9 deadline for independent presidential candidates to appear on the ballot — that's the earliest deadline among all the states. However, several states have deadlines in March if a candidate forms a minor party, which can sometimes require fewer signatures to get on the ballot.