Bill Kristol recently declared he’s still a Republican, despite spending the better part of the last two years going after Republicans and the GOP’s leader President Trump. His decision to remain Republican is based on three things: nostalgia for what the Republican Party once stood for, the distastefulness of the Democrats, and his belief the Republican Party can be saved. Kristol sees this hope in a primary challenge. Kristol’s not alone. A January survey from Survey Monkey and Axios showed forty-two percent of Republicans want there to be a primary challenge to Trump.
This is understandable. As Patrick Henry said in his famous “Give Me Liberty” speech, “It is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts.”
The painful truth is Trump is undefeatable in the Republican primaries. The primary system is still a frontloaded mess with most states voting early in the process. It’s unlikely there will be any major changes. The President can count on the support of the Republican establishment from one end of the country to another without exception. A successful challenger will have to raise massive amounts of money to have any hope of defeating the President. Simply put, a challenger can’t win because they can’t raise enough money to compete, and they can’t raise enough money to compete because they can’t win.
Further, Trump skeptics in the GOP include conservatives like Ben Sasse and moderates such as John Kasich. This same dilemma led to Trump’s nomination. Trump’s final opponents were John Kasich and Ted Cruz. While many conservatives blame Kasich for Cruz’s defeat, the truth is Kasich supporters were never going to be Cruz supporters and vice versa. No one has emerged who could bridge that divide. And if a conservative and a moderate formed a fusion ticket together, not enough conservatives and moderates would go along with it.
Finally, it’s unlikely a high-quality candidate would challenge Trump because running against Trump in the primary is a lose-lose-lose proposition. If someone challenges Trump and Trump wins, Trump will take every opportunity to make life unpleasant for the challenger, and his followers will do likewise. If Trump beats him but loses in the Fall, the primary challenger will be the scapegoat just as Pat Buchanan gets blamed for George H.W. Bush’s 1992 loss along with Ross Perot. Any 2020 challenger to Trump will become a by-word in Republican politics for why you don’t violate the divine right of Republican incumbents to be free from primary challenges.
In the unlikely event of the challenger winning the primary, what odds would the challenger have in November? If President Trump had dignity and class, he would accept defeat with grace and back the new party nominee. However, odds are we would hear him denounce his defeat as the result of a “rigged system” and his supporters would decry “the establishment.” In March 2016, Trump abandoned his pledge to support the party nominee if he lost.
It’d be unprecedented for a President to be defeated in the primary. It’s debatable if a challenger could ever bring the party together and win. However, likely Trump’s response would be to provoke his fan base into staying home or voting Democrat. Trump might even wrangle an Independent bid (in states without sore loser laws) or run as a write-in. Either way, a successful Trump primary challenger would likely lose the general election and certainly wouldn’t get another chance at the presidency.
Someone likely will run against Trump in the primary, but it won’t be anyone who could defeat him. Maybe, it’ll be a has-been politician with nothing to lose (Flake or Kasich), or a columnist/blogger with a large following, or a celebrity. The most they will manage to do is embarrass Trump with a stronger than usual finish in some state, for example, Kasich in New Hampshire and get to be a scapegoat if Trump loses in the fall.
Conservative Trump skeptics should be wiser. Time spent pining for a challenger to the President or pouring effort into supporting a substandard candidate will end in heartbreak. A failed insurgent campaign will end sometime in March 2020 with many people once again having no one to vote for in November. That time would be better spent building a new party that can provide conservatives not only a choice in 2020 but a way forward for the years to come.
The idea is controversial. Many consider that tactic as futile and pointless as a primary challenge. In my next article, I’ll address those criticisms and explain why a new party is conservatism’s best hope.
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