On ABC News’s “This Week” on Sunday, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) had the following exchange:

JONATHAN KARL: But you are open to running for president in 2020.
FLAKE: I don’t rule anything out, but it’s not in my plans.
KARL: It’s coming up by the way.
FLAKE: (LAUGHS) It is.
KARL: Would you be more likely to run for the Republican nomination against the president, or as an independent candidate?
FLAKE: Like I said, I haven’t thought that deeply about it. But I do believe if the president is running for reelection, if he continues on the path that he’s on, that that’s gonna leave a huge swath of voters looking for something else.
KARL: So you’re saying if he is the Republican nominee again, we’re likely to see an independent candidate, whether or not it’s you …
FLAKE: Oh yes, I think he’s inviting that. He’s probably inviting a Republican challenge as well. But certainly an independent challenge, yes.
KARL: What would it take for you to leave the Republican Party? I mean you’ve already been as harshly critical of your party’s president as you really can be.
FLAKE: Well, I can say that you know the fact that Roy Moore lost his election is a good sign, that maybe the Republican Party, maybe we can turn back, but if we continue to go down that path, just to drill down on the base, then I think you’ll have a lot of people realize there’s no future for them in this party. I know a lot of them. Some are family members. Some are you know Republicans I’ve known for a long time who’ve been lifelong Republicans, who simply say this is not my party, this is not where I want to go. But I hope, like I said, that with the election results in Alabama that maybe the party’s realizing, we’ve gotta change.

Unless President Trump is booted from office before then, current (or newly defected) Republicans seeking to dislodge him and free the party from his influence in 2020 will face the choice between uniting around a candidate to run against him as a Republican or fielding a third-party or independent candidate.  Several considerations are at play here.

First is the practical one: If Trump hasn’t been forced out of office, is there any realistic possibility that the party would abandon him for an anti-Trump challenger? Perhaps if the midterms are a disaster, Trump’s agenda is stalled and/or removal from office looms in the immediate future, Republicans will finally break with him. Barring that scenario (in which case Trump may well find a way to gracefully exit the race), it’s hard to see, even with a slight erosion in support among Republicans, that a dogged anti-Trump opponent could win. You’ve heard the Republicans relishing in his first year “successes,” delighting in the party’s turn to immigration exclusionism and joining in the anti-FBI and anti-Mueller slurs. A Trumpized party has made its choice and will, with the encouragement of state TV (Fox News), in all likelihood be willing to go down with the Trump ship, blaming the NeverTrump movement and/or media if he fails.

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Second is the philosophical one: Why would an anti-Trumper want to run under the banner of a party of quislings who accommodated themselves to Trump, ignored reality, engaged in conspiracy theories and failed to defend democratic institutions? Someone who recognizes just how far the GOP has gone astray would find it hard, I’d think, to seek to lead the party and hope for the partnership of House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), the Freedom Caucus and the rest of the fleet of sycophants. “Trump is a horror who must go, but elect me to work with the people who’ve been enabling him every step of the way.” That doesn’t sound promising as a campaign message, does it?

Third is the matter of the political landscape. Where are the gettable voters? Trump’s transformation of the GOP into a nativist, protectionist, nationalist and authoritarian party leaves out a large swath of the electorate, the part that makes up the 60 percent to 70 percent in polling who are opposed to virtually anything associated with Trump. If Democrats are smart, they will plant their flag — as Virginia Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D) and Sen.-elect Doug Jones (D-Ala.) did — smack in the middle of that, seeking to draw moderate Republicans, college-educated women, minorities, traditional Democrats and suburban voters. If they do that, there’s frankly little room for an ex-Republican, anti-Trumper to operate. (That said, a race with, say, John Kasich facing off against a practical Democratic mayor or governor would strike many as a wondrous gift.) At that point, the NeverTrump voters might well get behind the middle-of-the-road Democrat, if their mission is to rid the country of Trump.

If, however, the Democrats go far left, lining up behind Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the void in the middle of the political spectrum will be irresistibly enticing to a fiscally prudent, strong-on-defense, practical center-right candidate who has earned credibility by opposing Trump from the get-go. (There are a number of former and current GOP governors who might fill that slot: Kasich, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Brian Sandoval of Nevada, Larry Hogan of Maryland, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts.)

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We know all too well the institutional biases against third parties. We know the challenges to ballot qualification and to money-raising. That said, we are in uncharted waters in which one party has entirely lost its way and in which, with the benefit of time and social media, a candidate can gain name recognition and raise money without a traditional party. In the age of Trump, claiming that someone could “never” win or that some gambit is “impossible” is unwise.

In sum, from today’s vantage point, the most feasible path to defeating Trump, if he’s still around in 2020, for NeverTrump Republicans would be to find an independent/third-party candidate capable of siphoning off Republicans and Democrats while appealing to independents. Democrats should be on notice: The best way to prevent that and maximize their own chances in 2020 is to resist the pull of the far left.

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