The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump critics eye GOP primary race, even if defeating him seems ‘preposterous’

Former congressman Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) and former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld (R) are challenging President Trump in 2020. (Video: The Washington Post)

Joe Walsh, a pugnacious former congressman, is preparing a Republican primary challenge to President Trump that he previewed as a daily “bar fight” with the incumbent over his morality and competency.

Mark Sanford, a former South Carolina governor and congressman, said he is inching closer to a bid of his own by sounding out activists in New Hampshire and other early-voting states about an insurgency focused on the ballooning deficit.

Jeff Flake, a former Arizona senator and Trump antagonist, said he has taken a flurry of recruitment calls in recent days from GOP donors rattled by signs of an economic slowdown and hungry for an alternative to Trump.

And former Ohio governor John Kasich will head to New Hampshire next month to “take a look at things” after experiencing “an increase” in overtures this summer, an adviser said.

The anti-Trump movement inside the Republican Party — long a political wasteland — is feeling new urgency to mount a credible opposition to Trump before it’s too late. With state deadlines for nominating contests rapidly approaching in the fall, potential candidates face pressure to decide on running within the next few weeks. So far, only former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld has declared that he is running, but he has struggled to gain traction.

Republicans considering bids, as well as those trying to draft other candidates, acknowledge that defeating Trump appears to be nearly impossible but argue that a recession or an unforeseen change in the political climate could weaken him enough to make a primary challenge more than a Never Trump fantasy.

“Anybody who says, ‘I think I can beat Donald Trump,’ I think is stretching it,” Sanford said. “It’s a daunting task and it is indeed preposterous at many different levels.”

But Sanford said he recently returned from a trip to New Hampshire and is leaning toward jumping in — “another ‘green light on go’ versus ‘no go’ ” — and figures he “could win without winning.”

“If [Trump] gives you a nickname and has surrogates rough you up, you could get a message out and create a national conversation on what it means to be a Republican these days and that could probably be worth the endeavor,” Sanford said.

Money will be an immense hurdle. Trump and the affiliated committees raising money for his reelection bid reported collecting $105 million in April, May and June, shattering quarterly records. Many traditional Republican donors already are backing Trump, but anti-Trump organizers are courting wealthy independents or even liberals to contribute in the GOP primary, if only to bruise the president and help the eventual Democratic nominee in the general election.

Trump’s advisers and allies have dismissed the efforts as feckless plotting by a bloc that has lost relevance in the GOP. They also say the Trump campaign has built significant structural advantages that have effectively ensured he will be renominated at the party’s convention in Charlotte, such as placing loyalists in leadership posts at state parties and working closely with state GOP chairs to manage the delegate selection process.

“It’s a free country and people are allowed to have hobbies,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich said with a chuckle when asked about the primary bustle.

Inside the White House, neither Trump nor his team consider Weld or the prospective candidates to be serious threats because there has been no evidence of a groundswell of grass-roots support behind them.

“There’s no discussion of any of them or any of that,” said Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president. “None of them even has risen to the level of a nickname.”

The Republican National Committee is using aggressive measures to stave off any possible primary tussle. RNC members passed a resolution this year giving Trump the party’s “undivided support” and effectively merged with Trump’s campaign. “Republicans are firmly behind the president and any effort to challenge him in a primary is bound to go absolutely nowhere,” RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel said in a statement.

A Fox News poll last week had Trump at 88 percent approval among Republicans, which was the rating he had among Republicans in Gallup polling for the first half of August. The polling outlook among Republicans in early voting states is also favorable to Trump.

But that hasn’t stopped anti-Trump Republicans from scrambling to map out potential campaigns, driven by varying mixes of duty, conservative ire, ambition, vanity and loathing for Trump.

Walsh, now a talk-radio host, said he voted for Trump in 2016 but concluded after Trump declined in Helsinki last year to confront Russian President Vladi­mir Putin over election interference that he was “fundamentally unfit” for the office. He said he is huddling this week with potential supporters and is leaning toward announcing a campaign next month.

Referring to Trump, he said, “He’s a bully and he’s a coward. Somebody’s got to punch him in the face every single day.”

Walsh, who has his own history of incendiary comments, was elected to the House from Illinois in 2010 as part of the tea party wave and served one term. He described himself as an immigration hard-liner and said he would not challenge Trump from the center but from the right and on moral grounds.

Sanford is taking a different tack. He said that the case against Trump over morality, decency and corruption already is being made by other conservative commentators, so his prospective candidacy would fixate almost entirely on Trump’s deficit spending.

“We really are at a financial tipping point the likes of which we haven’t seen in a very long time,” Sanford said. “Unless we constructively engage this issue, which is not being done, I think the financial markets will do it for us, and historically that process has been bloody for regular, working, everyday Americans.”

Kasich, meanwhile, is “continually looking at this race and has seen an increase in people asking him to get in,” adviser John Weaver said. He is returning to New Hampshire in September to reconnect with supporters in the state in which he finished second to Trump in the 2016 primary.

“It’s prudent to take a look at things,” Weaver added.

Weld, a moderate and maverick who was the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2016, acknowledged that his campaign has so far sputtered, but he plans to spend much of the fall roaming around New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state that has elevated past challengers of incumbents.

“I’ve been thinking for a long time that the president’s shtick might begin to wear a little thin,” Weld said. “It’s not just because of the tariffs and his economic policy, but because of how he crossed the line in going after congressman Elijah Cummings and Baltimore as a ‘rat-infested’ city, and then the outrageous racism of taking on four minority congresswomen.”

Weld’s campaign, however, is dealing with its own upheaval. His political confidant, veteran GOP strategist Stuart Stevens, departed on Aug. 1 to work at a pro-Weld super PAC, and Jennifer Horn quietly exited as Weld’s campaign manager earlier this summer, with Weld now in the process of hiring new advisers.

New Hampshire’s terrain is far from guaranteed to be fertile for Trump’s critics. Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski is mulling a Senate campaign that could energize Trump’s most loyal supporters in the state — and Trump has cultivated his core voters there with arena rallies and frequent visits.

“It’s going to be extremely difficult for any primary candidate to build the operation required to be effective,” said Horn, a former New Hampshire GOP chair.

Despite the daunting odds, Flake said some Republican donors have “stepped up” their calls to him in recent days as the stock market has been rattled. Flake said they have asked whether he would reconsider a bid against Trump, months after he joined CBS News as a contributor and ruled out a 2020 campaign.

“They are wondering, if the economy isn’t stellar next year, how is the party going to win? By the president offending more people?” Flake said, declining to name the donors.

Flake said he has told them he is unlikely to reconsider his decision but would keep the door slightly ajar.

“I haven’t changed my mind and this is still the president’s party,” he said. “That’s the case right now.”

Anthony Scaramucci, once one of Trump’s biggest boosters on the White House staff, has turned on the president and is using his celebrity to rally Republicans against his former boss. He announced Tuesday he would create a super PAC, “the Committee to Dismantle Trump,” to run advertisements attacking the president.

“I’m going to throw my own dough in there, ask others to put their dough in there, and we’re going to explain to people what he’s doing,” Scaramucci told strategists David Axelrod and Mike Murphy on the “Hacks on Tap” podcast. He added, “I can grab a hold of 5, 6, 8 percent of the people that know he’s nuts and possibly move them.”

At the center of the fledgling movement is Bill Kristol, a longtime conservative commentator, who has become a power broker for anti-Trump Republicans — and a target of scorn for Trump and his followers.

Kristol directs an outside group, Republicans for the Rule of Law, and has played the role of recruiter, such as when he pitched Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan about running against Trump at a Baltimore Orioles game in April. Hogan decided not to run.

Kristol said he respects Weld, along with others who might run, but said his “dream scenario” would be for Trump to weaken this fall and a more prominent Republican decide to get in. This would have echoes of 1968, when then-President Lyndon B. Johnson’s reelection campaign was upended by Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s near upset in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, prompting Johnson to withdraw and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy to enter the race.

“You need more erosion of Trump in the polls, maybe an economic slowdown, more of a sense of him coming unglued, but the key is getting voters to focus on the question of whether they’re okay with four more years of Trump in the Oval Office,” Kristol said.

Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, is privately held by many anti-Trump activists and donors as their preferred standard-bearer, even though they do not expect him to run.

While Romney has kept a low profile in the Senate, he said in a speech in Salt Lake City on Monday that he considers himself a “renegade Republican” — and, in a swipe at Trump, said that “the likes of Putin and [North Korean dictator] Kim Jong Un deserve a censure rather than flattery,” according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

But Romney was realistic about the political dynamics. “My slice of the Republican Party these days is about that big,” he said, holding his hands closely together.