Why it’s hard — but not impossible — for Republicans to rival Trump in a primary

About a year out from an election, a first-time U.S. president who rode his outsider status to the White House struggles to work effectively with Congress, leading five lawmakers from his own party to announce an effort to dump him as the candidate. 

No, this is not a Donald Trump-related story you missed amid all the scoops coming out of Washington these days. Remarkably, it happened 40 years ago, as a group of Democrats felt their party needed stronger leadership than what president Jimmy Carter possessed. 

Carter was elected president in 1976, but members of Congress hoped Senator Edward Kennedy would rise to be the Democratic candidate in the 1980 election. Kennedy did in fact try, but Carter survived the challenge.

It’s fair to say that Trump has struggled more at governing than the three modern presidents who faced an intra-party challenge — a list that in addition to Carter includes Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.

“The real question is: What is it that gets a sufficient number of Republicans to turn against the president, so that either he’s impeached or he’s vulnerable to a serious primary challenge?” said Elaine Kamarck, author of Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know about How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates


The three challengers, so far, for the Republican nomination are, from left to right: William Weld, Mark Sanford and Joe Walsh. (Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters, Sean Rayford/Getty Images, Julius Constantine Motal/Associated Press)

So far, three Republican candidates have announced their intent to run against Trump: former Massachusetts governor William Weld; former South Carolina governor and U.S. congressman Mark Sanford; and Joe Walsh, a former U.S. congressman from Illinois.

There are no rumblings, despite the Ukraine storyline and its inherent impeachment risk for Trump, that more Republicans are about to come forward. Bigger names, such as Mitt Romney and Nikki Haley, haven’t dared.

If you’re a Republican with presidential ambitions, “I think the feeling is you’d be a kamikaze, and [it’s] better off keeping your head down and just surviving the moment,” said Jon Ward, a senior political correspondent at Yahoo and the author of the 2019 book Camelot’s End: Kennedy Vs. Carter and the Fight that Broke the Democratic Party.

Challengers believe future of party at stake

Indeed, Sanford, Walsh and Weld have embarked on a Herculean task never accomplished under the modern primary system. (President Lyndon Johnson, facing mounting opposition to the Vietnam War and strong early primary results for Democrats Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, simply decided not to run for re-election in 1968.)

Former California governor Ronald Reagan gave Ford a scare in 1976, and George H.W. Bush in 1992 had to defend his conservative bona fides against Pat Buchanan, who railed against illegal immigration and China’s unfair trade advantages.

In the cases of Ford and Carter, economic conditions led to dissatisfaction with the occupant of the Oval Office. The U.S. was officially in recession and dealing with an international oil embargo under Ford, while Carter’s time coincided with both high unemployment and inflation. Bush saw the economy swoon as he mounted his re-election campaign in 1992, with unemployment climbing over seven per cent for the first time in years.

Trump has presided over a robust economy. Despite some sobering economic indicators and forecasts and his application of divisive tariffs and Federal Reserve Board insults, there hasn’t been widespread pain for middle-class voters.

“The sand is running out of the hourglass for any kind of recession to match up with the timeline you’d need to challenge him [on that basis],” said Ward. 

Trump has been criticized over last year’s Helsinki summit and shifting positions on U.S. troops in Syria and Afghanistan. But Kamarck argued that “foreign policy tends not to move voters.”


Patrick Buchanan, a one-time Republican presidential candidate, smiles as he holds a 12-gauge shotgun on the 1992 campaign trail in Phoenix. (Chris Wilkins/AFP/Getty Images)

Even if the conditions are ripe for a challenge, Kamarck said that a strong narrative is crucial for a new candidate to be taken seriously. 

“To take on your party, you need to be for something that’s bigger than yourself,” she said. 

Reagan, for example, made a case for leaner government after the Nixon and Ford administrations added agencies and programs. Meanwhile, Ted Kennedy thought the Democrats had abandoned their New Deal roots, with Carter increasing the military budget but not pursuing major health care reform.  

Buchanan characterized his bid to unseat Bush as nothing less than “a contest for the soul and heart of the Republican Party.”

Trump dismisses would-be challengers

In 2019, the situation is different.

“Here, the problem with Trump is Trump,” said Kamarck. That’s certainly the way Joe Walsh has framed it. 

“I’m running because [Trump’s] unfit,” Walsh told ABC News. “Somebody needs to step up and there needs to be an alternative. The country is sick of this guy’s tantrum — he’s a child.”

But Walsh may not the best messenger for that theme. He himself was accused of making Islamophobic and other problematic statements during his years in Congress and as a radio host. Walsh said the divisiveness of Trump’s rhetoric has helped him see the error of his ways.


The other two candidates are making a play for more moderation in the way a U.S. president behaves and governs.

Sanford, who lost a congressional primary in 2018 after occasionally criticizing Trump in the preceding two years, highlights the current administration’s excessive debt and deficit spending.

“I think as a Republican Party we have lost our way,” Sanford said.

Weld, who four years ago was the vice-presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, also cites the deficit — as well as Trump’s inaction on climate change. 


It’s not clear if Trump can differentiate his three challengers. He has referred to them in the singular: “They’re a joke. They’re a laughingstock.”

Yahoo’s Ward thinks there are signs that some Republicans are tiring of Trump’s behaviour — and polls showing decent support for launching impeachment hearings have surprised some observers.

Delegates could in theory switch

The early stages of the Republican primary process in recent years have often seen a message of moderation drowned out by more strident voices — even before Trump. Republican challengers like televangelist Pat Robertson (1992) and libertarian Ron Paul (2012), for example, had strong Iowa caucus showings before more conventional voting demographics rejected them.

Roadblocks have been put up to make the process more formidable for any Trump challenger, with about a half-dozen states saying they won’t even hold Republican primaries. After the early February Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, there are no other primaries until Super Tuesday in March, when several states are in play.

But not all state primaries require voters to be registered Republicans. And unlike rules on the Democratic side, candidates don’t get right of approval over the delegates they accrue. 

“By not having primaries, Trump is trying to avoid an embarrassment,” said Kamarck. “On the other hand, he’s losing some control over the process of picking the delegates.” 


A delegate holds up a sign for Ted Cruz during the Republican National Convention in July 2016. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

At the Republican convention in Cleveland in 2016, there were last-minute efforts to throw support behind Ted Cruz, but they fizzled. Dozens of former Republican administration officials who worked in national security sounded the alarm then over a potential Trump presidency. 

Assailing his temperament and character, they wrote in a statement that Trump “appears to lack basic knowledge about and belief in the U.S. Constitution, U.S. laws and U.S. institutions.” They also worried that he would abandon allies and provide embarrassing moments on the world stage.

Trump campaign officials have taken steps to prevent remorse over his candidacy emerging again at the 2020 convention. The Republican National Committee approved a non-binding resolution declaring its “undivided support for President Donald J. Trump and his effective presidency.” The key word is non-binding. If more allegations of corruption emerge, it could result in a drumbeat for a Plan B.

“The political reality is, if Trump is mortally wounded and it’s March or even May [2020], if it’s bad enough, a political party can find a way to ditch the sitting president and find someone else,” said Ward.

While super-delegates and party officials have tended to rubber-stamp the will of primary voters at modern conventions, they are not bound on each and every ballot. 

“Convention delegates can, in fact, abandon the president,” she said. “There’s no legal reason they can’t do that.” 

The odds are still hugely in favour of Trump being the 2020 Republican nominee. But if he takes the party down with him in a comprehensive general election loss, Kamarck thinks it’s a strong bet Republican Party primary and convention rules could be rewritten as a bulwark against an “erratic and chaotic” candidate.

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