Serious primary challenges to a sitting president are usually a harbinger of electoral doom in the general election. Senator Eugene McCarthy’s challenge to President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 resulted in the Johnson choosing not to seek a second term. Senator Edward Kennedy’s challenge of President Jimmy Carter in 1980 was a long, fractious affair that resulted in Carter’s landslide defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan that November. Pat Buchanan’s populist challenge to President George H. W. Bush in 1992, never posed a real threat to denying Bush the nomination, but reflected growing unhappiness with Bush—even among his base—and paved the way for Bill Clinton’s general election victory in a raucous three-way race that included populist Ross Perot.
Given the history, it is not surprising that the rabidly anti-Trump media have stoked the embers of each and every possible GOP challenger, no matter how long the challenger’s odds might be against Trump in the 2020 primary.
From Jeff Flake to John Kasich to Mitt Romney to Larry Hogan to Mark Cuban to Bill Weld, the list of imaginary Trump challengers heralded by the media is almost endless. Past experience notwithstanding, the truth is the Trump-hating media should be careful what they wish for. In these times a primary challenge to President Trump could be good for Trump, good for the party, and good for the America First movement.
First and foremost, a primary challenge to Trump would prove to be a boost for Trump’s 2020 general election prospects. If Trump proved anything in 2016, it’s that you can throw historical precedent, conventional wisdom, and broadly accepted rules out the window. Trump turned the political world on its head in 2016, en route to his shocking win of the GOP nomination and his stunning upset of heavily favored Hillary Clinton in the general election.
A primary challenge to Trump would get the president out of Washington and back on the campaign trail. It is clear that Trump thrives on the energy of his rallies and, let’s face it, he is much better in the raucous unscripted rallies than he is in tightly scripted Oval Office speeches. Letting Trump be Trump has always been a recipe for success.
A primary challenge would also give Trump a definable foil. The media and NeverTrumpers harp on what they dislike about Trump—his Twitter feed, his disdain for tradition and protocol, his unpredictability, and his penchant for punching back hard. A primary challenger would remind voters that while they may not like everything about how Trump “behaves,” the alternative would be a return to the corrupt and disastrous D.C. insider policies that gave us endless unwinnable wars, porous borders, a hollowed-out middle class, and an economy that works only for a sliver of Americans.
A primary challenge would also give Trump an opportunity to get some of his swagger back and flex some political muscle. While Trump has been stuck in the 40 percent approval range, and as a result has been unable to leverage political power effectively in Washington, he still remains overwhelmingly popular among the Republican electorate.
A recent NBC/PBS Newshour/Marist poll finds Republicans approve of Trump by a margin of 83 percent to 10 percent, which is actually down from a previous poll that showed him at 90 percent approval with only 7 percent disapproval. What’s more, 97 percent of Republicans approved of his recent State of the Union address (that’s among 76 percent of Americans approving overall). A string of overwhelming primary victories for Trump would remind Republican politicians who is in charge of this new GOP.
Which speaks to another reality: a primary challenge to Trump would be good for the GOP.
In 2018, the Democrats rode intense voter motivation among their base to juice turnout on Election Day that resulted in Democrats retaking the House and making significant gains at the state and local level all across the country. For Republicans to be successful in 2020, they need to recreate the energy and enthusiasm among Trump’s populist base from 2016 that crashed through the Democrats so-called blue wall in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. A primary challenger from the establishment wing of the GOP would once again give rank-and-file Republicans disgusted with decades of failed Republican leadership a chance to rally around Trump. Nothing would do more to help recreate the 2016 Trump coalition like a primary challenge that pits Trump, the anti-establishment populist, against an establishment globalist.
Finally, a primary challenge not only would be good for Trump and the Republican Party, but it would also be good for the long-term continued success of the America First movement. In roughly two years, Trump has completely remade the Republican Party. He bucked party orthodoxy on foreign policy, immigration, gay rights, trade, and a wide array of other issues.
There is no guarantee, however, that Trump’s dramatic overhaul of the GOP will be permanent. Indeed, that is exactly what the NeverTrump wing is banking on. They believe that this move away from the establishment’s failed globalism and toward a populist America First ideology is more about a cult of personality around Trump and less about long term trends among the Republican base.
A primary challenge to Trump would serve as a referendum on the direction of the party and do much to begin to shape what the party will look like after Trump.
It is clear that the anti-Trump press and NeverTrumpers are convinced that a primary challenge to President Trump would be the first domino leading not only to his defeat but also to a return to the way things used to be. They shouldn’t be so certain. If anyone can buck conventional political wisdom, its Donald J. Trump.
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