Politics

Trump Would Destroy Any 2020 GOP Primary Challenger

Conservatives have their gripes with the president, but that doesn't mean they can push him out of office.
August 7, 2017, 8:43pm
From left: Mike Pence, Ben Sasse, and John Kasich. Photos via Getty

It's exactly 200 days into Donald Trump's presidency, and the vultures have already begun to circle. According to the New York Times, prominent Republicans like Ohio governor John Kasich, US senators Tom Cotton and Ben Sasse, and even Vice President Mike Pence are courting donors and holding events in important primary states—as they would if they were going to run for president in 2020. (Pence has strenuously denied he's interested in a primary campaign.) CNN's Chris Cillizza has floated other senators, like Ted Cruz or Jeff Flake, who could mount 2020 challenges of their own against Trump. "They see weakness in this president," Senator John McCain told the Times. "Look, it's not a nice business we're in."

These stories might just indicate a certain boredom on behalf of the DC political class, with Congress in a semi-recess and Trump on a semi-vacation in New Jersey. But the fact that there's well-sourced speculation Republicans might try to unseat a president from their own party who took office less than seven months ago shows just how weak that president is. His approval rating is below 40 percent, the Republican-dominated government is being denounced for its failure to do anything, and Trump has been publicly bummed out for months. Is it so crazy to imagine that if the long-simmering Russia scandal boils over and the administration remains unpopular and dysfunctional, Trump will a viable Republican challenger in 2020?

Yes, it is. Because no matter how weak Trump may appear as a president, he would crush any primary opponent in 2020.

In the 2016 primary campaign, no one took Trump seriously at the outset, yet he was able to abuse and publicly bully the establishment candidates relentlessly, making once-promising figures like Marco Rubio look vapid and foolish. As a president, Trump has struggled, but as a candidate he was a skilled manipulator of media and an expert at playing to his party's angry base. We'd see the same playbook all over again: the insults and rallies and debate performances that turned off media commentators but fired up people who hate media commentators.

Kasich, a relatively moderate Republican, refused to drop out until the end of primary season, but he never had the support Trump did. Why would he or another of the 2016 runners-up have a better chance in 2020, when Trump will have all the traditional advantages of an incumbent? (And maybe more, given his apparent desire to purge voter rolls.) The Trumpian attacks on Kasich or Cruz are almost too obvious: You couldn't beat me four years ago, so why are you trying now? You're disloyal, you're weak, you're the reason my agenda isn't working.

And as unpopular as Trump may be at the moment, he's excelled in the past at the art of negative contrast. People didn't like him as a candidate, but they didn't like Hillary Clinton either—and some of the people who didn't like Trump backed him anyway. Hypothetical 2020 challenger Ben Sasse is known for his brand of adult, moralistic conservatism, but even he would get dragged into the Trumpian muck. No one look goods by the end of a primary campaign featuring the former reality TV host.

Finally, Trump's approval rating among Republicans may be on the decline lately, but it's still hovering around 75 percent. That number might fall further if members of his administration are indicted as a result of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, or if Trump utterly fails to deliver on his promises over the next three years. But it needs to fall a lot for any primary campaign to be realistic.

There have been very few serious primary challenges to sitting presidents in American history—and none have been successful since the advent of the modern primary system. In 1976, Ronald Regan tried to take on incumbent Gerald Ford and narrowly failed. In 1980, Jimmy Carter was challenged unsuccessfully by Edward Kennedy. But both Ford and Carter were even less popular than Trump is now, with approval ratings hovering around 30 percent at times—and neither had Trump's killer instinct on the campaign trail. (None of the potential 2020 candidates has the fire of a Reagan or a Kennedy, either.) Maybe something will happen in the next few years to drastically alter the political landscape and make an anti-Trump primary possible. But for now, it's wishful thinking for the dog days of summer.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.