Carl P. Leubsdorf: Significant challenges face Flake, Kasich if they take on Trump

January 17, 2019

Mitt Romney’s recent diatribe against Donald Trump prompted speculation he might challenge the president in 2020. The former Massachusetts governor turned Utah senator quickly said, “I’m not running.”

However, two other prominent Republicans have refused to rule out challenging Trump: Jeff Flake, who retired from the Senate rather than buck pro-Trump sentiment in the Arizona GOP, and John Kasich, who ended two terms as Ohio’s governor Monday.

Kasich has openly floated the prospect of challenging Trump in the GOP primaries or as an independent. But if Kasich’s — or Flake’s — principal goal is to deny Trump a second term, history provides some clues as to the option most likely to succeed.

Incumbent presidents who faced serious challenges for re-nomination are generally less likely to be re-elected, even if they win re-nomination. Both Jimmy Carter, challenged by Edward Kennedy in 1980, and George H. W. Bush, facing Pat Buchanan in 1992, defeated their party rivals. Neither won a second term.

A GOP primary challenger would face the reality that the Republican establishment remains solidly behind Trump.

If Kasich wants to challenge Trump in the GOP primaries, his initial target would almost certainly be the first primary state of New Hampshire, bypassing the Iowa caucuses. That’s because he has more organized support there than in any other state outside Ohio. He finished a distant second to Trump in the 2016 primary, polling 16 percent to Trump’s 35 percent, and some of the state’s best-known Republicans never backed Trump.

The rank-and-file is split. In a New Hampshire poll last summer, four in 10 Republicans said a primary challenge to Trump would be “a good thing,” while slightly more, 47 percent, said it would be a “bad thing.”

An independent presidential candidacy is extremely difficult to pull off; getting on the ballot in enough states is very expensive and time-consuming, and only candidates who achieve a certain level of support in national polls can qualify for the televised debates.

Besides, the current political landscape makes an independent challenge even more problematic. Trump’s solid base assures him of at least 40 per cent of the vote, leaving 60 per cent for the Democratic nominee and an independent challenger.

Every additional vote one of them gets means less for the other anti-Trump candidate. The closer they finish, the more likely Trump could win. Put another way, if Trump only gets 40 percent, he can’t win a two-way race. But if two opponents split the opposition vote, Trump’s chances improve.

Another possibility: though Trump started planning and funding his re-election campaign as soon as he became president, subsequent events might prompt him to declare success and retire. He may also face the prospect of impeachment.

Some top GOP officials have talked of changing party rules to prevent a primary challenge to Trump. That’s probably impossible, but when the Republican National Committee meets Jan. 23 in Albuquerque, some sort of non-binding endorsement may occur.

Meanwhile, no sooner had Kasich signed up with a talent agency and as a CNN political commentator than Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, fired off a tweet calling the former Ohio governor “the original swamp creature.”

So they’re taking the possibility of a 2020 challenge seriously.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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