The race for 2020 is taking shape, although there are still significant unknowns, including whether Donald Trump will get a serious primary challenge.
His fiercest Republican critics say, “Yes — please, please, yes.”
They are probably wrong, and it’s certainly nothing to root for.
Trump’s dominance of the party begins with his lockdown support of the right, forcing any primary challenger to the left. This isn’t fertile territory. Self-identified moderates and liberals are only a fraction of the party, and it is grassroots conservative activists who have fueled the most potent Republican primary challenges (Ronald Reagan in 1976, Pat Buchanan in 1992).
Because a primary challenge would naturally come from the left and is unlikely to succeed, it will tend to attract people who don’t have a future in GOP national politics and lack conservative bona fides — the wayward former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld; the centrist governor of Maryland Larry Hogan; the former Ohio governor John Kasich, who convincingly demonstrated his lack of national electoral appeal in 2016.
Trump is in a stronger position in the party now than he was then. He’s been a rock on judges, abortion and religious liberty. Last time, many Republicans told themselves, “Well, at least compared to Hillary, we don’t know what we’re getting with Trump.” Now, they are grateful for what they’ve gotten.
Could all of this change? It would require a torpedo to the bow from some enormous scandal and a significant ideological betrayal on something extremely important, like a Supreme Court nominee.
The promoters of a Trump primary challenge still haven’t come to grips with how intertwined Trump’s fate is with the party’s.
If Trump becomes seriously vulnerable to a primary challenge, it’s a sign that something very bad has happened that won’t be constrained to him. Say it’s proof of a criminal conspiracy with the Russians. Is the rest of the party that has defended Trump so vociferously in the Mueller probe going to emerge unscathed? Say it’s a sudden economic downturn. What’s the case that such an event wouldn’t tank the GOP generally?
Indeed, a winning primary campaign against Trump would almost certainly be a catastrophic success. How would the winner put the party back together again for the general election?
Perhaps the hardcore Trump base and media will enthusiastically back whoever slays their champion. But why would they? Besides the inevitable hurt feelings and ideological disagreements, they will surely consider recent precedent — Never Trump would be the analogue to Never Hogan.
Of course, a primary campaign doesn’t have to be about winning. Futile gestures can achieve a kind of grandeur. Bill Buckley was never going to win the 1965 New York City mayoral campaign, but he did promote his brand of conservatism. In their primary challenges, Reagan and Buchanan were movement-builders, not just candidates.
Does anyone really believe, though, that Weld, Hogan or Kasich is going to define the future of the post-Trump Republican Party? There are people out there who may well have significant say in the party’s future — a Nikki Haley or a Tom Cotton — but for them, 2024 will come soon enough (if Trump loses, the presidential jockeying begins in less than two years; if he wins, in less than four).
There is obviously a character case to be made against Trump, although Republican voters are already aware of his flaws and strongly support him nonetheless.
The contradiction in the case for a primary challenge is this: If it’s a bad thing that Trump is potentially a weak general-election candidate, as Trump’s critics say, then why make him potentially weaker with a primary challenge? What many of Trump’s GOP detractors won’t say out loud is that when they talk of defeating Trump, they don’t mean only defeating him in a nomination battle; they mean seeing him lose in a general election.
That Republican voters would sense this, and understandably recoil, is another reason a primary challenge is probably a box canyon.