President Trump could face a primary challenger in 2020. And a contested fight for the Republican nomination might be exactly what he wants.
Trump has transformed the Republican Party in his image over the last two years, driving critics out of the party and instilling fear in would-be GOP challengers.
The president is undefeated in the last 14 Republican primaries, a winning streak that suggests opposition, at least within the GOP electorate, is futile.
As a result, the big question isn’t whether Trump would win a primary, but whether being tested would weaken him for the general election.
Intraparty challenges to incumbent presidents have traditionally wounded commanders in chief.
In 1976, former President Ford prevailed over Ronald Reagan before losing to Jimmy Carter.
Four years later, Carter lost to Reagan after a bitter primary with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).
And in 1992, then-candidate Pat Buchanan attacked former President George H.W. Bush for breaking his pledge not to raise taxes. Bush triumphed, but subsequently lost to Bill Clinton that fall.
All of that suggests Trump would benefit from not having a 2020 Republican challenger.
Yet Trump has repeatedly defied convention in his political career, and there are reasons to think a GOP challenge could actually help him.
Trump’s base has shown that it is invigorated by challenges to the president, whether they come from Democrats or Republicans seen as part of the GOP establishment.
And Trump has generally emerged from intra-GOP conflicts with strength.
Unlike George H.W. Bush or Ford, Trump’s standing with the GOP base is strong. His approval rating in the GOP hovers around 90 percent.
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said a primary challenge doesn’t scare Trump because “nobody energizes the GOP base more than Donald J. Trump.”
Trump would also benefit from having something to do while what is expected to be a rowdy and crowded Democratic presidential primary unfolds.
The president, who loves campaigning and being the center of attention, would be better off vanquishing an insurgent candidate or two in each early primary state than sitting on the sidelines and yielding air time to the Democratic Party.
Republicans who can’t abide Trump haven’t given up on the dream of knocking him out in a primary.
And it’s still early. Much will happen between now and the 2020 primary season, most notably the midterm elections and the findings of the Russia investigation headed by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Republican strategist Mike Murphy, a “never Trumper,” wrote in a March op-ed in Politico that beating Trump in a primary isn’t mission impossible: “While defeating an incumbent president in a primary is the longest of political long shots, if 2018 goes badly it is a shot worth taking.”
Yet, a formidable challenger has not emerged. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) hasn’t ruled out a bid though he only won his home state in the 2016 presidential primaries. Others who have been mentioned include Sens. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Ben Sasse (Neb.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.), as well as Senate candidate and 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. All five have been publicly lambasted by Trump.
Officials from both parties have fretted about a prolonged and/or crowded primary reducing their chances of winning the general election. But after an intense primary battle with Hillary Clinton in 2008, Barack Obama easily won the presidency against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Trump, meanwhile, defeated 16 Republican rivals and subsequently beat Clinton in the fall of 2016.
The noise of a primary season is likely to energize the president, who will have a chance to try to define the slew of expected Democratic candidates as they try to appeal to their liberal base.
“Trump will insert himself in the Democrats’ narrative and suck the oxygen from them,” O’Connell stated.
Matthew Dallek, an associate professor at George Washington’s Graduate School of Political Management, has made the case that someone in the Republican Party must challenge Trump in 2020. Dallek wrote in The Washington Post in May that the GOP is “doomed in the long run if no Republican stands for the principles that the party has for so long said it defends: governmental restraint and individual liberty.”
Dallek told The Hill that it’s “a bit presumptuous at this early date to predict that a primary challenge will aid Trump politically.”
He noted that Trump’s trade policies could hurt Iowa’s farmers and the economy could slow over the next 18 months. That could weaken his strong support in the GOP: “A primary challenger need only net about 20 to 30 percent of the vote in, say, New Hampshire to deal a blow to Trump’s reelection campaign, so while the bar may seem pretty high right now, it may become easier to clear come January 2020, depending on what’s happening in the world, Trump’s standing with women voters, and the economic mood.”
Alternatively, Dallek added, “it’s always conceivable that a challenge by the likes of Kasich or Flake that ends up fizzling in New Hampshire will simply serve to lock up Trump’s support in the GOP, aiding his reelection bid.”