It has been 37 years since the last time an incumbent president drew a serious primary challenger – Ted Kennedy against Jimmy Carter – and 25 years since Pat Buchanan made noise as a protest candidate in New Hampshire against George H.W. Bush. But if someone who had slept through the 2016 campaign were suddenly awakened and given a few key facts about the state of Donald Trump’s administration, they would instantly suggest that he should expect not just a Republican challenger in 2020, but one with decent prospects of success.
Those facts start with Trump being reduced to a 38 percent approval rating just nine months into his presidency, despite solid economic trends and no foreign crises worse than saber rattling. They include the ongoing investigation into his campaign associates’ ties to Russia, which has already produced indictments, and his Carteresque failures on domestic policy, despite Republican control of Congress. And they include the quiet fear and loathing Trump continues to inspire among Republican elites – including the former Republican president who recently slammed him by implication, and the two Republican senators who just questioned his fitness for his office.
But unlike our fictional Rip Van Winkle, we were all awake in 2016, and so this litany of weaknesses is not enough to vindicate Matt Bai, the longtime political correspondent, who recently called a serious primary challenge “inevitable.” Instead the experience of ‘16 points to a different interpretation of the facts – that having failed to stop Trump when he was eminently beatable, the ranks of Republican politicians are unlikely to throw up a serious challenger now that he has consolidated partisan support.
Which he certainly has done. Trump’s unpopularity is stark, but not among his party’s voters. His approval ratings with Republicans have lost a few points off their peak, but they are still stable at about 80 percent. And one of the striking features of Trump’s support is that he seems to have consolidated especially the Republican voters who once were most resistant to his charms – not the populists and nationalists and celebrity-struck centrists, but the ideological conservatives and party loyalists who probably mostly voted for Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
In a big new Pew Research slicing-and-dicing of the American electorate, it is these voters, the “Core Conservatives,” who give Trump the highest approval ratings – higher than what Pew calls “Country First” and “Market Skeptic” Republicans, the groups that you naturally associate with Trump’s populist campaign.
The fact that Trump has tried to govern as more of a conventional conservative than a populist is probably one reason the core now supports him so steadfastly. By letting Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have their way (however unsuccessfully) on policy detail, he’s weakened any appeal to the center he once had, but also sealed partisan loyalties and protected his right flank. The same goes for his promise-keeping, to date, with his religious-conservative supporters: Churchgoing evangelicals, in particular, were quite skeptical of his primary campaign, but now they seem to have accepted a transactional relationship, telling themselves “in Pence we trust.”
But the biggest reason for Trump’s support from core Republicans is likely the simple pull of partisanship. When he wasn’t yet the face of the party, they found various principled and practical reasons to oppose him. But now that he’s their Republican president, all those doubts seem irrelevant, and identifying as a partisan means identifying with him.
This is a difficult environment in which to imagine a primary challenger flourishing. Indeed, it leaves the most common type of anti-Trump Republican politician, the Jeff Flake sort who imagine themselves the tribunes of a more principled and ideologically consistent conservatism, without any obvious constituency at all – since the supposedly principled and ideologically consistent conservative voters are now the heart of Trump’s support.
I still think somebody should primary the president, both as a protest against his unfitness and a means of beginning the necessary debate within the party about how its future leaders – the Tom Cotton-Nikki Haley ticket, or the Ivanka-Rubio Duumvirate – might make conservatism great again.
But no rising figure in the GOP is likely to consider sacrificing their career to make a protest or start an intellectual debate – leaving the task to retirees and elder statesmen, to a Flake or a Bob Corker or a John Kasich or even a Mitt Romney. And there is every reason to think that most of them would demur as well, and that the inevitable challenger will look more like the third party challengers of 2016 – an Evan McMullin or a Gary Johnson, or some foolhardy NeverTrump pundit drafted into the lists.
However: It would also be a mistake to assume that the present environment will necessarily persist – that because Trump has held Republicans thus far there is nothing that could shake his 38 percent support. George W. Bush was bonded to the GOP base by partisanship and wartime leadership and shared religious values and his approval still sank to the 20s when events turned sharply against his presidency. Trump does not have nearly as far to fall as Bush, some of his support is soft, he has already lost 7 points off his January 2016 approval ratings, and neither war nor economic crisis have really tested him as yet.
What might weaken him further? An economic slowdown. An overseas debacle too significant to be explained away by Fox’s talking heads. The indictment of a family member. A botched nomination the next time a Supreme Court vacancy occurs. Something strange and Trumpy, that cannot yet be foreseen.
Partisanship and incumbency being what they are, even with approval ratings in the 20s Trump would still be the favorite to win his party’s nomination. But the possibilities for a challenger would widen, and so might the list of possible contenders.
Such a contender, though, would need to be shrewd as well as bold. Various obvious lines of attack against Trump are ill-suited for a primary assault. He’s not an ideological conservative was tried and found conspicuously wanting in ‘16. Pious attacks on his moral failings, however justified, are likely to also feel like indictments of his voters – whose backing a primary challenger would need to win. And absent something dispositive from Robert Mueller, going all-in on the Russia scandals would link a challenger too closely to the Democrats.
Instead, a primary campaign would need to be waged more in sorrow than in anger, accusing Trump of broken promises, lamenting his administration’s inability to legislate, and promising to carry on certain parts of his agenda (judges, above all) but with more competence and tact.
The challenger would need to criticize Trump from the ideological right on some issues, but also reach out to more populist Republicans, especially from Pew’s “Market Skeptic” category, by asking why his infrastructure bill never happened, why his tax cuts haven’t done more for the middle class, why he isn’t doing more to stop outsourcing and bring back the coal industry and so on down the list of (yes, always-implausible) broken promises.
And then instead of accusing Trump of being a racist or misogynist or authoritarian (as true as those accusations may be), the challenger would simply lament that after pledging to drain the morass of Washington the president let his administration be taken over by swamp creatures.
The goal would be to create a permission structure for wavering Republican voters, the sort who dislike Trump’s Twitter feed and fret a little about the nuclear codes and say they “somewhat” rather than “strongly” approve of him, but thanking him for waging war on Washington and then moving on to a more competent alternative.
Which also means that such a campaign would make the most sense coming from outside Washington, rather than from one of the senators who have opposed or criticized or resisted Trump to date. It would be a plausible fit, especially, for a governor whose chances in a crowded 2024 field might be quite dim, giving him a good reason to take a risk in ‘20 – but who is not strongly identified with anti-Trump politics right now, and who would be taken seriously as a vehicle for Republicans who want to turn the page.
Better a Kasich than a Flake, in other words – but better still a Scott Walker or even a Matt Bevin.
If today’s status quo holds, all of this is so much NeverTrump fanfiction, and none of these names will be on the 2020 ballot. But these days fortune favors pundits who entertain the unexpected – and ambitious politicians who prepare for it.