Trump is asking for a primary challenger in 2020. Here's how it could save the GOP

A banner promoting the television show 'The Apprentice' hangs from the entrance of Trump Tower on March 19, 2004.
Richard Levine | Corbis | Getty Images
A banner promoting the television show 'The Apprentice' hangs from the entrance of Trump Tower on March 19, 2004.

This article originally appeared in Commentary Magazine.

It's no secret that President Donald Trump is no fan of Arizona Senator Jeff Flake. He's gone so far as to encourage Flake's prospective primary challengers and to attack Flake at a rally in the senator's home state. Turnabout is fair play. Asked whether the president's habit of engaging in internecine feuds with his fellow Republicans made a primary challenge to Trump more likely, Flake did not give a political answer. "I think he's inviting one," he said. Flake is right, but don't take his word for it. Donald Trump's own pollster confirms it.

On Tuesday, the Republican consultant and Trump campaign pollster Tony Fabrizio revealed the results of a survey was ostensibly designed to dispel the notion that the president's base was beginning to lose heart. It achieved the precise opposite effect.

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According to Fabrizio, the number of Republican voters who approve of the job Trump is doing in office declined from 81 percent in June to 75 percent in August. Total disapproval increased from 19 to 25 percent. That kind of attrition is remarkable and outpaces even the rate at which public pollsters have shown Republican voters abandoning Trump.

But Fabrizio wasn't done face-planting. To prove that Trump still commands the enduring affections of his voters, the pollster tested a handful of prominent Republicans who are or were critical of the president against him in a theoretical primary battle.

"[Trump is] crushing a hypothetical GOP primary field," Fabrizio boomed triumphantly. "So much for the 'buyer's remorse' the DC insiders are convinced the GOP has." In fact, by even testing this proposition just seven months into a presidency, Fabrizio demonstrated that the president's people think the ground is softening beneath Trump's feet. The results of this survey proved conclusively that it is.

In a five-way primary race between Trump, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and Senators Ted Cruz, Ben Sasse, and Tom Cotton, Trump wins the contest handily. But he only pulls the support of 50 percent of the potential GOP electorate and 54 percent of the likely Republican vote. Among all Republicans, only 42 percent would "definitely" vote for Trump, rising to just 49 percent among likely GOP voters.

These are atrocious numbers for an incumbent. By way of comparison, in the immediate wake of the 2010 midterm elections and at the nadir of Barack Obama's political potency to that point, he was still drawing 65 percent among Democrats in a hypothetical primary contest between him and Hillary Clinton. Fabrizio's numbers prove without a doubt that Trump's base is crumbling, and Republicans who are contemplating a primary challenge are justified in doing so.

Trump's Praetorian Guard may pretend as though the president is unconcerned about a primary challenge, but his behavior suggests otherwise. His 2020 campaign machine is staffing up, raising funds, and tracking potential Democratic challengers. The president is touring swing states holding campaign-style rallies among devoted fans. Donald Trump is not exactly a wounded animal, but he clearly senses that predators are starting to gather, eying him hungrily.

It's worth considering that this kind of thinking is precisely what Team Trump wants to incept in prospective challengers. Maybe Fabrizio's inexplicable victory lap is explained by the White House's desire to bait prospective GOP challengers into probing donors, gauging receptivity on the Hill, or otherwise outing themselves early enough to nail them before they become threats. If that's the strategy, it's so obvious and ham-fisted it may only embolden potential candidates.

Inevitably, when political observers think about the prospect of a primary challenge against a sitting president, they think about personalities. Who will the candidates be? This is the wrong way to think about it at this early stage. Few anticipated Eugene McCarthy would emerge a credible candidate in 1965, or that the Vietnam War would be such a rallying cry. In 1977, who expected Ted Kennedy to test his popularity among Democrats at the polls? The issue set that Pat Buchanan used to mobilize a GOP coalition to challenge George H. W. Bush barely existed in 1989. The figures that emerge to challenge Trump could take us entirely by surprise. That's why it may be more predictive to examine the ideological camps from which primary challengers might emerge.

We can consolidate those camps into three factions. The first we'll call the Kasich Camp. Ohio's governor has been unguardedly positioning himself as a challenger to Trump in 2020, but from the president's left. He does not support Obamacare's repeal or the prolonging of America's mission in Afghanistan, and he's been reliably critical of Trump's rhetorical excesses.

The second camp is the camp into which Flake and Sasse fall: these Republicans are happy Trump has been convinced to abandon much of his isolationist and protectionist policy preferences, but are convinced his uncivil rhetoric is dividing the nation against itself.

The third camp is the Bannon camp: the wing of the GOP that believes in Trumpism even more than Trump.

Let's dismiss the last group offhand. The Bannon camp may be the most disappointed with the reality of Trump, but he's the only game in town. There just isn't much room to Trump's right on issues close the hearts of populist nationalists. As for the Kasich Camp, John Kasich pretty has that one locked. This leaves us to speculate on the Flake/Sasse wing. This group has the broadest Republican constituency from which to draw support. It is very likely to produce a real contender.

That contender should, however, realize what he or she might be getting into. There is no triumph on this path; at least, not in the near-term. Trump's challenger or challengers should know that they are most likely martyring themselves. No one has ever defeated a sitting president in a primary. They will be blamed for rending the party asunder and undermining Trump's chances for victory in November. If Trump loses, his supporters will be able to dismiss that loss as reflective not of Trump's record in office but the conceit of the spoiler.

All of these burdens may be worth bearing if prospective candidates truly believe the GOP is being transformed permanently into an irascible, bitter, racially anxious party that is hostile toward conservatism. Trump's challengers may arrest that transformative process, but they won't get credit for it initially. Vindication would come later.

Commentary by Noah Rothman, associate editor for Commentary Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @NoahCRothman.

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