Mormons. Cubans. College-educated suburbanites. Beltway publications and think tanks.
Many Republicans opposed Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016, but they failed to amount to more than pockets of resistance. Instead, the party faithful rallied around Republican nominee Donald Trump during the 2016 election. Since his upset victory, Trump has only continued consolidating his party’s support. A recent NBC/WSJ poll found his approval rating at 82%-13%, while a Harvard/Harris poll found a similar job approval rating at 86%-14%. Republicans, by and large, support their party’s president.
This article is not written for your standard Republican.
Instead, it is a place for the intra-party opposition to imagine a viable primary challenge to their own party’s incumbent president. Nevertheless, there is little place for fantasy either (until the end). Ignore some of the biggest fish, the senators and others who sounded Never Trump during the 2016 primaries and suddenly rallied around their party’s nominee from the general election to the present day. Cruz, Rubio, Paul– they’re digging in, accommodating the president to win specific policy battles and survive future primaries.
Instead, we are looking for something above a “Some Dude,” a candidacy strong enough to register if not seriously derail a sitting president by scoring significant electoral victory. Think Sen. Ted Kennedy challenging Carter, or Pat Buchanan in 1992. None of these candidates will win; however, by injecting their voice into the primary process, they may shape the Republican Party in the years and political cycles to come.
Here are six potential Republican challengers to Donald Trump.
1. John Kasich
Background: In the 1990s, John Kasich was a conservative congressman from Ohio. Now serving his second term as governor of Ohio, he ran in the 2016 presidential election as a decidedly moderate version of himself. He accomplished little in that campaign, claiming second in New Hamsphire and winning only his home state after being advised by the infamous John Weaver, known for the eminently successful presidential runs of Sen. John McCain and former Gov. Jon Huntsman.
Why he will run: Kasich stayed in the presidential race long enough to split the vote with other non-Trump options like Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and fantasize about winning a contested convention. Unlike his rivals, the Ohio governor continued his criticism of Trump long after he lost the presidential nomination. Mimicking Jon Hunstman’s prior role, Kasich now serves as a “respectable” Republican voice in the media (“Even John Kasich thinks…”). With his gubernatorial term ending in 2018, a primary campaign against Trump could give Kasich a platform to extend his relevance to national politics. For example, Kasich’s latest pitch is delighting the media as a Republican supporting Medicaid expansion again and writing a book about uniting the country.
Meanwhile, with every month Kasich and his backers tease ambiguous statements regarding his future plans. Somehow he lands himself gushing profiles, like this one from CNN on pop culture. The steady drumbeat points in one direction- Kasich has never entirely stopped campaigning for president in the background.
Why he won’t run or win: Of all the candidates on this list, Kasich acts the closest to pulling the trigger on a presidential bid. This is less a question of likelihood than effectiveness. Kasich is the latest moderate-ish Republican presidential candidate. Nevertheless, we’ve seen how this brand plays in Republican presidential primaries. It’s why John McCain fired John Weaver in his own presidential campaign, why Jon Huntsman never won a presidential primary, and why Kasich only won his home state. Trump will easily run to Kasich’s right, with incumbency to boot. In Harold Stassen-like fashion, the only poll Kasich will lead is a straw poll of reporters covering his campaign.
Biography: A fourth-term US Congressman from Michigan’s 3rd congressional disrict, centered on Grand Rapids. An avowed libertarian, Amash is a Freedom Caucus member with close ties to former Congressman Ron Paul’s political network.
Why he will run: Unlike most House members, Justin Amash has been willing to criticize Trump on a wide variety of issues. His criticism is wide-ranging, from Trump’s travel ban to proposed Mexican tariffs to potential enforcement of federal laws concerning marijuana. His current pinned tweet is even a quote from George Washington criticizing political parties. “Let me now…warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.” Amash even bragged about being one of the first Republicans to suggest impeachment for President Trump (which prompted a curious “No I was first” reaction from Rep. Carlos Curbelo in FL-26).
After Sen. Rand Paul’s lackluster presidential campaign, the libertarian movement needs a standardbearer. The buzz has centered around Rep. Justin Amash as the next candidate. While I previously thought that rumor-mongering meant Amash would run in 2024, now I wonder if it could be a primary in 2020.
Amash certainly has some strong traits. He comes off as less curmudegonly than Rand, effectively redirecting hostile crowds during the recent wave of belligerent town hall meetings. And his hardline libertarianism has the potential to resurrect the enthusiasm and small donors that fueled Paul’s rise in the first place.
Why he won’t run or win: When Ron Paul ran, he actually managed to put up solid performances in a number of states, including Iowa. The calculus for Rand’s campaign was that the Kentucky Senator would claim all those voters (15-20% depending on the state) and more with a friendlier libertarian message. However, the opposite occurred; the brash “truth-teller” Trump took the elder Paul’s mantle and won the voters who liked Paul’s style but not necessarily substance. Instead, reliable libertarian voters are something like 5% of your presidential primary electorate. Amash will have to deal with that same problem, without the massive Paul fundraising operation to back him.
Amash also has a similar problem as Kasich, since Trump can outflank him on longstanding Republican stances on issues like immigration and national security. Add on incumbency, and it’s hard to see how a majority of Republicans defect for a niche ideological candidate. Still, this would be an easy way for Amash to expand his fundraising and national persona.
Biography: A former operations director at the CIA and a former Hill policy and national security staffer, McMullin ran for President in 2016 after several other potential Never Trump figures passed on their own protest candidacies. He took half a percent in that campaign nationally and 20% in Utah (he is a Mormon). Since the presidential election, McMullin has continued his unrelenting criticism of President Trump in various media in an almost Kasich-like fashion.
Why he will run: While he is known to national media, McMullin is relatively unknown to American voters. A primary challenge to Trump from a moderately qualified candidate will generate renewed media coverage for McMullin and his criticism of the president. Of course, as someone who volunteered for a suicide run in 2016, he could probably run just because of his animus for Trump.
Why he won’t run or win: Who cares? Until recently, McMullin was just a high-level Capitol staffer. He has no real constituency besides young Mormons, which was reinforced by his paltry vote totals outside of Utah during the 2016 presidential election. Picture a Mormon John Kasich running with less campaign experience and donors, and that’s what we have here. McMullin probably recognizes that, and he is considering either the open UT-3 or a primary against Sen. Orrin Hatch. Luckily for McMullin, he pulls relatively well in the unique environment of Utah, boasting a 42%-28% approval rating statewide– that’s a lot of name recognition for someone with no previous elected experience and a very poorly funded campaign last cycle. Nationally, McMullin is stuck in the awkward place of being loved by none, left or right. Utah, on the other hand- why not take the path of, if not least, less resistance?
Biography: Once a potential conservative consensus choice for president in 2012, former South Carolina congressman and governor Mark Sanford fell from grace by lying about hiking the Appalachian Trail to instead visit his mistress in Argentina. Several years and a divorce later, Sanford came back from obscurity to run for and win his suddenly open former seat in SC-1 in 2013. Now Sanford has regained a perch in national politics and a shot at redemption.
Why he will run: A libertarian-flavored anti-establishment Republican and member of the Freedom Caucus, Sanford has made no qualms about his dislike for President Trump. He called the president the “antithesis, or the undoing, of everything I thought I knew about politics, preparation and life.” Even after the congressional baseball shooting, Sanford called Trump’s rhetoric violent and “a problem.” Trump has certainly reciprocated, using former Freedom Caucus member and now OMB Director Mick Mulvaney to relay a direct primary threat. Unlike other potential presidential candidates, however, Sanford has nothing to lose. After winning his seat back, establishment Republicans don’t really have leverage on him. After all, Sanford was abandoned by many of his previous allies over the Appalachian Trail scandal. Now back from the political dead, Sanford can play a less dashing Count of Monte Cristo to those who have wronged him and the conservative movement at large as an (ironic) truth-teller. As one longtime friend told Politico,
Why he won’t run or win: Sanford may have nothing to lose, but he may have other fights to pick. For starters, a lengthy Politico profile said that self-funding businessman and veteran, Ted Fienning, plans to challenge him in 2018 after a lackluster 2016 primary where Sanford spent lose change to win by less than 10 points. Second, Sanford and his $1 million+ warchest may be pointed more towards a primary with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) than any kind of presidential race, according to the same lengthy Politico profile. Sanford himself threw cold water on at least a gubernatorial bid, but he certainly didn’t close the door on running somewhere besides SC-1.
Sanford gets points for chutzpah, earned after becoming a party pariah and winning a stunning comeback. Nevertheless, he walked the presidential gauntlet once, and it led to the unraveling of his career and personal life. Something tells me the congressman is much more likely to look towards a statewide bid on familiar turf than a presidential windmill at which to tilt.
Biography: A former chief of staff to then-Gov. Jon Huntsman, Chaffetz burst into elected office in 2008 with a successful convention and primary challenge to a sitting Republican incumbent. Since then he worked up the ranks of House leadership, reaching the chairmanship of the House Committee on Oversight.
Why he will run: Chaffetz suddenly has a lot more time on his hands after announcing his retirement from the House in April and formally resigning yesterday. His lack of a job also frees him up from carrying water for the administration, requesting whatever number of FBI documents exist related to Jim Comey and Michael Flynn in the closing month of his chairmanship. Even further, Chaffetz declared the Trump administration no different than -gasp- President Obama’s:
“The reality is, sadly, I don’t see much difference between the Trump administration and the Obama administration. I thought there would be this, these floodgates would open up with all the documents we wanted from the Department of State, the Department of Justice, the Pentagon,” Chaffetz said.
“In many ways, it’s almost worse because we’re getting nothing, and that’s terribly frustrating and, with all due respect, the attorney general has not changed at all. I find him to be worse than what I saw with [former Attorney General] Loretta Lynch in terms of releasing documents and making things available. I just, that’s my experience, and that’s not what I expected,” he said.
Even during the presidential campaign, Chaffetz withdrew support from Trump, although he ultimately voted for him.
Why he won’t run or win: Much like Sanford, Chaffetz has little love for Trump, but he may have other fish to fry. Chaffetz is reportedly interested in a 2020 gubernatorial bid. Some conspiratorially suggest the resignation and anti-Trump comments is just Chaffetz attempting to thread the strange needle of anti-Trumpism prevalent among his Mormon Utah base and the support of a sitting Republican president most Republicans expect. From that perspective, Chaffetz has no interest in a potentially suicidal presidential primary, instead talking about spending more time with his family as a way of emphasizing his Utah roots to win his next office.
Biography: Ben Sasse presents a curious character (see this surprisingly detailed bio from... Mother Jones? I know). An intellectual and academic who worked in a variety of federal roles and served as a liberal arts college president, somehow Sasse found himself as one of a number of Tea Party insurgents in Senate primaries in 2014. Sasse publicly opposed Trump throughout the 2016 presidential primaries, but he broke with his Republican colleagues (sans Lee) in an important way: after Trump secured the Republican nomination, Sasse publicly encouraged the idea of an independent or third party presidential candidate to present an alternative to Hillary or Donald.
Why he will run: I saved the most fantastic candidate for last. Since the election, Sasse has received gushing coverage from the mainstream media over his recent and somewhat apolitical book, The Vanishing American Adult, which argues rising American adolescents are being raised without preparation for adulthood and its responsibilities. However, the most appealing aspect of Sasse may be his ability to intrigue interest without polarizing in the manner of the typical Tea Party conservatives one might find in the Senate, such as Rand, Cruz, or even Lee to a certain extent. Sasse represents a blank slate, one that could be theoretically amenable to various factions of the party, even the Majority Leader he criticized to win his primary.
Why he won’t run or win: When it comes down to it, the approval ratings at the top of this article are the reason most of these candidates are unlikely to run. Sasse’s promise as a candidate means that, much like he chose not to run in 2016, the Nebraska senator does not plan to impale himself upon the pike of a presidential primary. Senator Ben Sasse has the most promise of any candidate on this list, coupling a positive media profile and conservative credibility right at the outset of his political career. If you are a younger candidate like Sasse or Amash (or even the triangulating Rubio, Cruz, and Rand), the smart play is to wait your turn for 2024 and prepare for that . If you are a lesser-tier candidate like Sanford or McMullin, lower races offer more promise. A presidential primary is a gamble, and one that a candidate is likely to lose.
Ultimately, standard Republicans already have their 2020 candidate. For the rest of us, it is hard to find a gambling man.