Last time, I looked at the lay of the land concerning the possibility of a 2020 Republican primary. The idea has started to pick up a lot of traction in the media. It’s not without merit, as polling is starting to show that even before an actual campaign, a strong number of Republicans are open to the idea of a challenger.
One of the most important questions to start with in assessing this topic is “What qualities/traits is the ideal challenger going to have in order to have the best chance of success?” While the ultimate success would be defeating Trump, that may or may not be possible depending on the environment, so you can also reasonably say that winning some primaries and taking a significant proportion of the votes in order to lay a marker for what the National GOP should be post-2020 would be a success (See: Reagan ’76). There are a number of different ideas I could mention here, and a candidate may not need to meet all these characteristics to succeed by either definition. Nonetheless, here are 4 key ideas to consider in what a Republican challenger to Trump should look like to have the best chance of success:
- The successful challenger should come from (or at least run from) the Right, not the Center
Like it or not, Republican Primary voters are not looking for John Kasich. They want someone who will govern as a Conservative. Tim Miller, who worked for Jeb Bush in 2016, makes this point on a recent Bulwark podcast, saying that, for example, a “Where is the Wall” type approach is probably going to be what has the best chance of gaining traction. You could supplement this with a wide variety of issue points, from “Why is Planned Parenthood still funded” to “Why do we still have Obamacare” to “Why is the deficit ballooning” to “Why do we have an administration full of war hawks arguing we need to go into Venezuela after Trump said he wouldn’t get us into conflicts”. Depending on how the candidate and his or her team wants to run, there is lots of material to attack Trump from the Right with that doesn’t even require going full Ted Cruz/Tea Party to do it, much less Stephen Miller/Ann Coulter. You can’t abandon all Conservative orthodoxy either though, like John Kasich. This ties very closely to point 2, which is ….
- The successful challenger appeals to your 2016 Rubio/Cruz/Carson voters
A lot of people forget Donald Trump won the 2016 nomination with a plurality of the votes ( ~ 45%). If a candidate can unite the coalition of non-Trump voters from 2016, and then maybe activate some number of new voters who oppose Trump, the math works. We can talk about what the ideal combination looks like (Rubio’s Charisma and Optimism, Cruz’s animosity to DC and appeal to Evangelicals, Carson’s background and outsider status, etc.), but a successful campaign needs to start with the question “How do I hold together Trump-skeptical Republicans?” and go from there.
- The successful challenger should be from outside DC (Businessman, Governor, etc) or should have a record in DC of standing up for Conservative values and against “the Swamp”.
The overall distaste for “The Establishment” or “The Swamp” by your typical Republican Primary voter has not changed since 2016. That said, there is still a base of people who aren’t happy with DC but who aren’t happy with Trump either because of his character and haphazard approach to governing, or because they feel he has sold out his base and become “The Establishment.” The successful Candidate is going to be able to appeal to these voters by railing against corruption in DC. The very savvy campaign will be able to show why Trump is “The Swamp” due to all his self-dealing with the Trump Organization, Trump Hotel, etc. The average voter may not care about Roger Stone and Russia, but they may be made to care about Trump telling them he was going to drain the swamp, and then getting rich off it himself.
- The successful challenger will be able to fundraise very successfully.
Going up against a prepared Trump-RNC apparatus is not going to be a task for the faint of heart. Running a serious challenge to any serious incumbent is a difficult manner. A very savvy campaign may be able to run an effective challenge in a cost-effective manner. In a 24/7 news environment, doing more Earned Media as opposed to massive TV ad buys should be doable, as long as the dollars saved are going to building field staff, top-notch digital, competent data operations, etc. That said, it’s a Presidential campaign, and a top-notch operation will require serious dollars. There’s multiple ways you can do this. Maybe the candidate is charismatic and a good debater, so that there may be room for a strong small-dollar donor apparatus. If the candidate is well-connected, or perhaps comes from a business background, you could possibly run a more Super PAC driven campaign. Regardless, though, it’s going to take someone who is serious about fundraising one way or another to build the groundwork to launch a serious challenge against an incumbent.
Call this 4b or 5, but I’m going to throw out one more quality that may not be essential, but could be helpful. Name ID would help a candidate get a fast start out of the gate and have instant credibility. I put it as non-essential because most Republicans with some type of notable experience will immediately receive significant earned media and exposure.