The feisty Republicans who are primarying Donald Trump

Here on the Election Ride Home we have mostly focused on the Democratic primaries. And there's a pretty good reason for this: one of these people is potentially the next president. But there are also Republican primaries. I'm gonna venture out on a nice, sturdy limb here and say: none of these people will be the next president -- not in 2020 anyway.

Nonetheless, when incumbents face significant primary challenges from within their own party, it is important. So in this episode we're going to get you up to speed with the Republican primaries and what history tells us about what to expect in the coming months.

Let’s start with who's running.

First into the Republican primary pool was Bill Weld, the two-term governor of Massachusetts. Weld announced he was running way back in February. Weld is a long-time Trump critic and actually urged voters to opt for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Weld is a moderate, traditional Republican. He's a fiscal conservative who cuts spending and balances budgets. He's a climate change believer, he supports LGBTQ rights and he believes income inequality is a real problem. Weld is staking his claim as the highly competent and reasonable choice.

Here's Bill Weld making his case:

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The next person to declare was a real shocker: Eagles' guitarist Joe Walsh, best known for The James Gang classic "Funk #49"!

Maybe I'm looking at the wrong Wikipedia entry? Yeah, sorry.

Okay, Joe Walsh is conservative radio commentator, one-term Illinois congressman, and member of the Tea Party movement. Walsh has definitely said some wild stuff. Like he promoted the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Walsh has apologized for statements like these and some people now refer to him as "Woke Joe Walsh" to distinguish him from his previous incarnation.

Walsh originally promoted Trump but has turned on him with a vengeance. He's now one of Trump's fiercest conservative critics. For Republicans who want a bomb-thrower, Joe Walsh is your guy -- Trump attacks are pretty much the core of his platform. The headline on his campaign homepage reads: "We’re tired of the lies. We’re tired of the drama. We won’t take four more years."

Here's a bit of Joe Walsh's campaign announcement video:

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And the most recent Republican to announce is former governor of South Carolina and two-term congressman Mark Sanford. Sanford also served in the Air Force from 2003 to 2013 and achieved the rank of captain.

Sanford is very similar to Weld. He's a fiscal conservative and this is the core of his platform: debt, deficits, and spending. Sanford aims to get America's books back in order.

Sanford's messaging almost sounds like he doesn't expect to win. He thinks Republicans and conservatives need to talk things through among themselves. Sanford told MSNBC's Morning Joe:

I’m running because I think we need to have a conversation about what it means to be a Republican.

Unfortunately for Sanford, unless a court challenge works, his home state of South Carolina won't be able to vote for him. That’s because the GOP in his home state has cancelled that primary. More on that later.

Here's a clip from Sanford's campaign launch video:

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And those are the Republican candidates right now. We’ve got two moderates in Weld and Sanford plus an anti-Trump bomb-thrower in Woke Joe Walsh.

The savvy Republicans who are not primarying Trump

Many of you out there probably noticed something about these three candidates: none of them are major figures in the conservative landscape. Earlier in Trump's term there was much speculation about a variety of higher-profile candidates who might choose to primary him and none of them has announced yet.

These were people like John Kasich, the two-term governor of Ohio. Of all the people who could primary Trump, Kasich seemed like one of the most likely. He's not shy about criticizing Trump and he's run for the Republican nomination twice already and lost. Why not roll the dice one more time?

Alas, it's not looking like it's gonna happen. Back in May, Kasich told the Washington Post he didn't see a path to the nomination.

Others options who were once discussed were people like Nikki Haley, another former South Carolina Governor and the former Ambassador to the UN; Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse; former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake; and even Utah Senator and 2012 Presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Sasse, Flake, and Romney have all taken stands against Trump. And Haley is one of the few people to have served the Trump administration, occasionally taking opposing positions, but emerging politically stronger.

Haley has already endorsed Trump's reelection campaign, so I think we can assume she's out. As for the likes of Sasse, Flake, Romney, and others, I’ll be surprised if any of these people runs -- or anybody else in their tier. It’s just too risky a venture in our hyper-polarized, tribal climate. Parties are closing ranks nowadays and running against Trump has the potential to turn tens of millions of voters against you. I tend to think that all the Republican primary candidates will be those with nothing much to lose. If they lose like they're expected to, they can still launch themselves to relevance, like maybe as political commentators or cabinet members for a future president. And if lightning strikes and they somehow are competitive, even briefly, then they've positioned themselves as viable future candidates. This sort of thing has happened before and I'll talk more about it shortly.

For people like Weld and Sanford and Walsh, the risk is worth the reward. For politicians with more to lose, who are in the prime of their careers, the safest and smartest thing to do is not gamble, sit this one out, and wait for 2024.

What happens when incumbents are primaried

So when has this happened before and what was the result? When have other politicians primaried sitting presidents from their own party?

It actually happens all the time -- it's the rule, not the exception. Obama had a bunch of primary challengers in various states. John McConnell Wolfe Jr., who is a lawyer from Nashville, was the most successful of these. He got over 100,000 votes and 23 delegates in 2012.

And there was also Keith Judd, who was a convicted felon at the time. He won 41% of the primary vote in West Virginia, where many voters were strongly opposed to Obama's environmental policies.

And of course, there was Vermin Supreme, who is best known for wearing a boot on his head and carrying a large toothbrush. His platform included zombie apocalypse awareness, time travel research, and a free pony for every American.

Token candidates like these are referred to as paper candidates -- they exist only on ballots.

To narrow things down -- and get more serious -- who were the significant challengers? Who posed a real threat and won some states or at least or at least got close?

The most dramatic example of this in modern history was 1968. The 1968 election had an extraordinarily dramatic primary season -- this chapter of history could merit its show. But in brief, by 1968 the Vietnam War had become extremely unpopular among Democrats and they largely blamed Democratic president Lyndon Johnson. Eugene McCarthy -- not to be confused with Joseph McCarthy of McCarthyism fame -- was a former Minnesota senator and capitalized on this early on in the primaries. He scored 42% of the popular vote in the New Hampshire primary.

After this Robert Kennedy, brother of John F Kennedy, announced that he would run. McCarthy wasn't considered a strong candidate but Bobby Kennedy was. A couple weeks after that, Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek the nomination. McCarthy won a handful more Primaries as the Kennedy campaign ramped up, then Kennedy won the pivotal California primary. But after giving his victory speech, Robert Kennedy was assassinated.

After all this chaos, Hubert Humphrey, who had been vice president and was Johnson's running mate, went on to win the nomination at the convention, despite never entering any of the primaries. This is part of what sparked the adoption of the modern system in which all states have primaries. Humphrey then lost to Richard Nixon. He got close on the popular vote, but was trounced in the electoral college by Nixon.

Folks, if you think things are crazy now, start reading about the late sixties and early seventies. It was much, much worse. Perhaps we’re weren’t more polarized, but things were way scarier.

The 1968 election is an outlier in all of American history and elections are now fundamentally different -- you now pretty much have to win the primaries to win the election. Nonetheless, it is a definite reminder that history can unfold in highly unpredictable ways.

Since then, there have been three other significant primary challenges to sitting presidents from within their own parties. All of them are much less dramatic but they're probably more instructive. And they all had the same end result.

In 1976 Ronald Reagan primaried President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. Now remember, Gerald Ford is a unique president in American history because he was never elected president -- or vice president. In the political musical chairs that took place after the Watergate scandal, Ford was the last man standing. I butchered my metaphors there but I think you know what I mean. Ford had also pardoned Richard Nixon for his misdeeds related to Watergate, which was highly controversial. So Ford was an unusually vulnerable incumbent and his primary opponent was a promising Republican, former California Governor and moderately successful actor, Ronald Reagan.

The primaries were very close, as was the vote at the Republican National Convention. (Again, this is still before the modern primary system had fully formed.) Gerald Ford won a squeaker -- I mean, it was close. Ford then went on to lose to Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer who had been the Governor of Georgia. Ford got 240 electoral votes, while Carter got 297.

Then just four years later, it was Carter's turn to get a dose of this medicine. Carter's first term was mired in a recession and a hostage crisis in Iran. His primary opponent would be another brother of JFK and the lone survivor of all the Kennedy boys, Massachusetts Governor Ted Kennedy. So again, we have a vulnerable incumbent attracting top-shelf talent as an opponent.

But Ted Kennedy was a scandal-plagued guy and couldn't organize a campaign that truly challenged Carter's. Nonetheless, Kennedy won twelve state primaries. Kennedy then gave a speech in which he didn't really concede and endorse Carter, but instead speechified about his own political vision, and this further deflated the already sagging Carter campaign. Carter then took an epic butt-kicking in the general election, winning just 49 electoral votes to the Republican's 489. The president in 1980 became that promising political talent from the 1976 election, Ronald Reagan.

So Ronald Reagan primaried an incumbent, lost by a hair, then went on to become a two-term president. So the template is set: a savvy politician can run against their own party, arguably weakening that opponent and costing them the election, then go on to future glory.

But nobody since then has pulled off Reagan's trick.

The scene in 1992 was familiar. The economy was lagging and Pat Buchanan sensed an opportunity against George H.W. Bush, who had been Reagan's vice president. But Buchanan wasn't really considered a rising Republican star -- he was a political commentator. Buchanan won almost a quarter of the primary vote, and Bush was then further harmed by a third-party candidate in the general election, the Texas billionaire Ross Perot. The election ultimately went to Bill Clinton, who won 370 electoral votes to Bush's 168.

Buchanan never rose so high politically again but he had a long career as prominent conservative voice. As Jessica Taylor of NPR wrote in May of this year:

...there was an anti-establishment vein within the GOP Buchanan may have helped awaken. It might have taken decades to fully manifest, but many saw Trump as the eventual embodiment of what Buchanan helped to shape.

So. What have we learned from all this? Major take-away: in recent decades, incumbents who faced significant primary challengers have all lost. And we've also learned from Pat Buchanan and especially Ronald Reagan, that primarying an incumbent can advance your career. Primarying a sitting president from your own party can be a smart move.

Cancelled Republican primaries and what it all means

To some observers, it appears that the Trump administration and the Republican party are aware of the risks posed by primary challengers and they have been working to stack the deck in Trump's favor. According to an article in The Hill by Reid Wilson, the Trump administration has been installing pro-Trump party officials in key states.

As of this recording, five states are planning to cancel their 2020 primaries or caucuses: South Carolina, Nevada, Arizona, Kansas, and Alaska. Of those, South Carolina is in the midst of a legal battle over its primary led by a Republican congressman serving the state. If you want to hear more about that, you can listen to the October 4th episode of this show.

I don't know about you, but in the midst of the Trump era, a lot of unprecedented things have been done and said and I often assume that whatever the latest outrage is, it's totally new. But in this case, there's not yet anything going on here that hasn't happened plenty of times in the past -- by both parties.

Often in the past these same states have cancelled primaries. Arizona didn't have a Democratic primary in 2012, when Obama was president. South Carolina also didn't have Democratic primaries in '96 and 2012. Democrats overall cancelled ten primaries in the 2012 election cycle.

Kansas also didn't have a Democratic primary in 1996 when Clinton was president. In total, there were eight states that canceled their Democratic primaries that year.

South Carolina didn't have a Republican primary during the Reagan or George W. Bush years. In 2004, ten states canceled their GOP primaries.

We've often seen up to 10 states cancel primaries when there's an incumbent. According to CBS News:

Republicans and Democrats canceled presidential nominating contests to protect incumbents across 10 or fewer states in 1992, 1996, 2004 and 2012.

The parties do this not only to make things easier for their candidate, but also to save money. Nevada GOP Chairman Michael McDonald told Politico's Alex Isenstadt:

It would be malpractice on my part to waste money on a caucus to come to the inevitable conclusion that President Trump will be getting all our delegates in Charlotte. We should be spending those funds to get all our candidates across the finish line instead.

The current count for cancelled Republican primaries and caucuses is five. But unless the tally rises to above ten, we're not in uncharted territory here. Now I'm not arguing that this is right. Reasonable people can disagree about that. But it's definitely not new and it's not just a Republican thing.

The road ahead

Again, in the most recent three cases where a president faced a significant challenger within his own party, all of them went on to lose: Ford, Carter, H.W. Bush. Now is this because these candidates were primaried? Or were these weak candidates, likely to lose anyway, who were primaried because they were weak? We don't know. Regardless, in American politics, a strong primary challenger is a bad sign.

Traditionally, the state to watch here is New Hampshire. And by the way, there's no way that primary gets cancelled -- it's state law that they have one. According to Morning Consult, Trump's approval rating in New Hampshire is 38%, while disapproval is at 60%. And those numbers have been trending in the wrong direction for Trump ever since inauguration. However, his approval among Republicans is around 90%. So Trump is not a broadly popular candidate, but he is very popular within his party, which is what matters for the primary.

I don't see any Republican beating Trump -- unless something outlandish happens. But an opponent getting, say, 30%-ish in a state or two or three is a bad look. A significant primary challenge could lend more weight to the appearance that the Trump ship is sinking.

But this is Donald Trump we're talking about. He's an outlier -- the traditional rules don't apply to him. For now, I'm assuming he'll come out of primary season unscathed.

Thank you so much for listening everyone! My name is Kirby Ferguson and you can find me on Twitter at @remixeverything. You can find my latest video series, This is Not a Conspiracy Theory, at thisisnotaconspiracytheory.com. I am off to enjoy the last scraps of sunny weather we are enjoying here in Portland, Oregon. So I'm off for a bike ride with my hound dog. I hope to be back in your earbuds again soon. Take care everyone.