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The VPR’s Guide to Potential GOP Primary Challengers

You’d be forgiven if, among the stream of Democrats announcing their candidacies for president, you missed the announcement from former Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) that he would not challenge President Trump in the fast-approaching 2020 primary season. But, as the competition heats up on the Democratic side of the aisle, speculation is still raging among Republicans about the potential for an intra-party challenger to the president.

You’d also be forgiven if you immediately wrote off the hypothetical viability of such a challenge given Trump’s sky-high approval numbers (almost 90 percent per CNN, an outlet that typically gives the President some of his worst polling numbers) within his own party. However, these numbers and the viability of a challenger deserve a second look.

First of all, Trump’s support among some Republicans may be less than profound. For instance, if you were to ask a Republican simply, “do you support President Trump,” they would likely answer “yes.” After all, the president has delivered on many conservative policy goals such as deregulation, tax reform, and judicial appointments. But if you actually gave Republicans an alternative, some number of them might prefer these same policies to come from a more conventional, less erratic Republican.

There is even some polling to support the viability of a primary challenge. An American Barometer survey from Hill.TV in November 2018 indicated that 43 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of independents want someone to challenge President Trump for the nomination. This does not necessarily mean that 43 percent of Republicans would vote against Trump for the nomination, but it at least leaves the door cracked open for someone to present an alternative to Republican voters.

And it’s important to note that, in politics, the situation can change overnight. While Trump’s intra-party support is strong now, the chance remains that he could take some action that runs counter a part of his base in the more than 600 days between now and election day. This would have to be something shocking like nominating a pro-abortion judge to the Supreme Court (should another seat open up), which would alienate the evangelical conservative base. He could also, say, abandon his infamous border wall proposal and come out in favor of open borders. Apart from these highly unlikely scenarios, something out of Trump’s immediate control—a recession, for example—could weaken his support.

There also exists the possibility that the “Never-Trump” faction of the Republican Party could coalesce to support a serious challenge. Again, Trump’s numbers among Republicans may not be all that they seem. In the Trump era, the evidence suggests that many Republicans under 45 have begun identifying as independents. Given that 40% of Republicans and Republican-leaners are under 50, this amounts to a significant potential constituency for a challenger. And given that Trump’s support is essentially limited to staunch Republicans, it’s important to look at the evidence for who not only self-identified Republicans want on the ballot, but also who Republican-leaning independents want. On this score, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that a full third of these voters want someone other than Trump at the head of the Republican ticket in 2020.

So, all that being said, following the elimination of Jeff Flake from the running, there are still several contenders worthy of note who could mount a serious challenge to the president—former Governor John Kasich (R-OH), Governor Larry Hogan (R-MD), and Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE).

Since his 2016 bid for the Republican nomination, Kasich has been perhaps Trump’s most vocal critic from within the Republican Party. Like all potential challengers, Kasich’s chance is slim, but, also like the others, he has tried to position himself as a more principled and conventional Republican alternative to Trump. He made clear to RealClearPolitics’ Morton Kondracke, “I’m not a moderate, I’m a conservative,” while still speaking about what he calls “the great middle” in American politics.

This all seems to signal that he is attempting to build a base among the Never-Trump Republicans, many of whom now shy away from calling themselves Republicans, but are not reserved about identifying as conservatives. Kasich has also been travelling to key primary states—with two visits to New Hampshire under his belt—and making the rounds of the media in an effort to boost his national name recognition.

This simple issue of lack of name recognition is one that will plague almost all of the potential GOP challengers to President Trump. Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland is certainly no exception. He is surprisingly popular in his deep-blue home state and easily won reelection in 2018, becoming the first two-term Republican governor of Maryland since 1954. Though he has not visited New Hampshire, a must for presidential hopefuls, Hogan has not ruled out a 2020 run. He also has a notable moderate Republican pedigree—his father, Rep. Lawrence Hogan Sr., was the first Republican on the House Judiciary Committee to call for the impeachment of Richard Nixon in 1974.

That lineage has helped Hogan credibly make the case that the American people, “yearn for something better and more noble than the politics of today.” His best shot at winning a significant portion of the primary vote would be in Northeastern and West Coast states with relatively moderate Republican populations—he would be benefited by the fact that, in the Republican primaries, states are awarded delegates based on total population, not how many Republican voters they have, giving large blue states like New York and Massachusetts outsized power. Though Hogan is personally against abortion, his lack of outspokenness and activism on the issue will not win him any friends on the Christian right that predominates in Republican politics in much of the South and Midwest.

Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska may have more credibility with Heartland Republicans, however, owing to his reputation as a clean-cut up-and-comer with a strong conservative record. Sasse has made clear that it is unlikely he will run in 2020, but he hasn’t ruled it out completely. He’s also publicly stated that he often considers leaving the GOP. He consistently speaks out against the increasing rancor and polarization in American politics, and is not afraid to call out the Republican Party for its contributions.

On this topic, he recently released a book entitled Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal (I recommend it if you’re looking for a fresh and nuanced take on the American body politic). As pundits will tell you, releasing a book is a tradition for politicians gearing up for a run. All of this has, despite Sasse’s insistence that he most likely will not run, fed the rumor mill. Given his open dissatisfaction with his party, some even wonder whether he might run as an independent.

Some other Republicans are worth a mention in addition to Kasich, Hogan, and Sasse. Due to his vocal criticism of Donald Trump, two-time presidential candidate and current senator from Utah Mitt Romney has been floated as a possible challenger. Though he has said publicly he will not run, speculation has persisted in Republican circles, and not without reason; the senator raised eyebrows recently when he held a major fundraiser in the D.C. suburbs. Romney, though, insists it was only a routine event.

There has also been some talk of a challenge from Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Like Senator Sasse, Haley is seen as a rising star in the Republican Party and has not shied away from disagreement with the president. She announced this past October that she would not run in 2020, but, in this political environment, it’s hard to rule it out entirely. Given her popularity as a governor, her solid conservative credentials, and her newly-acquired foreign policy experience, Haley could make a particularly strong candidate.

Even if Trump’s numbers aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, the polls still show low support for a potential primary challenger. The question is, will the possibility of independent support be enough to convince another Republican to run? Electibility, after all, is typically cited as a key motivation for primary voters. Frankly, if someone does run, they should expect to lose—probably badly. But if the goal is only to present a different vision of the Republican Party and, in the process, to damage Trump and tarnish his intra-party reputation, this is more feasible.

The historical data clearly demonstrates that  primary challenges with even a modicum of success do not end well for the incumbent in the general election. Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976 after a spirited primary challenge by Ronald Reagan in which Reagan won 46% of the vote to Ford’s 53%. Carter then lost to Reagan in 1980 after a similarly successful primary challenge by Ted Kennedy. Finally, George H. W. Bush lost in 1992 after a challenge by Pat Buchanan, who garnered just a quarter of primary voters, but nearly upset Bush in New Hampshire. For Republicans with an alternative vision for America’s conservative movement, a Trump defeat in 2020 could force the very reboot they’re looking for.


Learn more

CBS News — When presidents get primary challenges

Politico Magazine — How to Primary Trump in 2020

Vanity Fair — Trump 2020 is Purging the GOP Primary of Dissidents

Teddy David ’22 is a prospective history major and a Junior Editor of the VPR. He is also a member of VOICE and the Vassar College Republicans.

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