The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The right strategy to primary Trump

President Trump listens as chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, speaks during a campaign rally on Nov. 5, 2018, in Cape Girardeau, Mo.
President Trump listens as chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, speaks during a campaign rally on Nov. 5, 2018, in Cape Girardeau, Mo. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist, is executive director of Defending Democracy Together.

President Trump has never looked more vulnerable to a primary challenge.

According to a new Post-ABC News poll, 56 percent of Americans say they will definitely not vote for Trump for president in 2020. A mid-January NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll showed that 44 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents favor a primary challenge. A Des Moines Register-CNN-Mediacom Iowa poll found in mid-December that 63 percent of registered Republicans in Iowa would be open to a challenge for Trump. In New Hampshire, that other bellwether state, 40 percent of Republicans said it would be good for Trump to face a primary contest — and that was in August, before the GOP’s midterm rout, before Jim Mattis’s resignation as defense secretary, before the government shutdown.

The trend won’t be lost on potential Republican challengers, whose number may include Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, former Ohio governor John Kasich and former Massachusetts governor William Weld. A nervous Trump-aligned Republican establishment is certainly aware of the president’s weakening hold on voters.

How would launching a primary challenge against Trump work?

The Republican National Committee would rather not find out. In December, the Trump campaign and the RNC announced a plan to “streamline” their organizations, creating what RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel called “the biggest, most efficient and unified campaign operation in American history.” The RNC-Trump conglomerate will combine millions in financial resources under one umbrella called Trump Victory. Such arrangements are more common after the party chooses a nominee.

At its winter gathering in Santa Ana Pueblo, N.M., last week, the RNC passed a resolution declaring the committee’s “undivided support” for Trump. The GOP is running interference for Trump at the state level, too — the Kansas Republican Party is considering dropping its presidential caucus, and the party in South Carolina may cancel its primary.

If a legitimate Republican candidate enters the race, the RNC may be tempted to double down on its Trump support, but given the significant portion of Republican voters interested in seeing him challenged, the RNC should go to a neutral corner and let the primary candidates fight it out.

The Iowa caucuses will be held a year from now, on Feb. 3. Before then, a Trump primary challenger would need to secure ballot access and caucus nominators in every state (assuming that the GOP in Kansas, South Carolina and possibly other states, when presented with a primary challenger, are shamed into dropping cancellation plans and actually hold their contests). As with any primary candidacy, that would mean recruiting field teams across the country that can gather the required petition signatures to get on each state’s ballot. The requirements vary widely, anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 signatures in most states; in a handful of cases, a candidate need only pay a filing fee to get on the ballot.

Many states add requirements for the petitions to test the organizational mettle of campaigns. But it might be hardest for a Trump primary challenger to get on the ballot in states such as California and Texas, where state party organizations have sufficient control over the primary system to keep a challenger off the ballot for no other reason than caprice or self-interest. They could similarly put Trump on the ballot unilaterally, saving his campaign the trouble of qualifying.

At this moment, when the GOP establishment’s support for Trump seems unshakable, partisan self-interest could mean blocking a challenger. But months from now — when the fallout from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation may be clear, for instance — the political winds might be blowing in another direction, and the state Republican organizations might be more welcoming to a challenger. Their election officers could use their discretion to place a challenger’s name on primary ballots, removing the hurdle of collecting tens of thousands of nomination petition signatures.

In states with caucuses, a challenger will need to recruit and prepare supporters long before the caucus day to ensure strong representation from Republican voters who aren’t Trump supporters. (They do exist, and their numbers may grow. See above.)

Republican candidates aren’t known for their prowess in small-dollar fundraising, but a Trump challenger could well draw considerable small-dollar support from across the political spectrum.

This being politics, money will of course be essential. Having a lot of it, and early, could be decisive in challenging Trump. A challenger’s strong showing in early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire would cause an earthquake in the GOP, if not the White House. In 1968, incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson — supposedly on a glide path to the Democratic nomination — was stunned to win barely 50 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary against Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s 42 percent; Johnson dropped out of the race.

It was a failure of political imagination that helped put Trump in the Oval Office. A primary challenger may need only a little political imagination to begin the process of evicting him.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: What would it take for Trump to get a primary challenge in 2020?

Jennifer Rubin: Here’s just the guy to primary Trump

Stephen F. Hayes: The country needs a Republican to challenge Trump in 2020

Jennifer Rubin: Here’s why Cory Gardner and other Republicans deserve to lose in 2020

Larry Hogan: A divided government doesn’t have to be divisive. We’ve proved that in Maryland.