The bad news if you’re worried about a primary challenge from Mitt Romney is that the head of the RNC happens to be his niece. In theory that makes any RNC effort to cancel the primaries to thwart him harder.
In practice she’s a Trump stooge who’s already demonstrated that her political loyalty runs to Trump first and to family second. Lest there was any remaining doubt about that, she proved the point again this morning:
POTUS is attacked and obstructed by the MSM media and Democrats 24/7. For an incoming Republican freshman senator to attack @realdonaldtrump as their first act feeds into what the Democrats and media want and is disappointing and unproductive. https://t.co/ArhI7Bi7bo
— Ronna McDaniel (@GOPChairwoman) January 2, 2019
So yeah, I’d say a RNC push to block Romney from challenging Trump is quite likely indeed — assuming, that is, that Romney is thinking about it. Which he isn’t.
“Look, the political history is clear. No Republican president opposed for re-nomination has ever won re-election,” RNC committeeman Jevon O.A. Williams said in a email obtained by the Washington Examiner. “Unfortunately, loopholes in the rules governing the 2020 re-nomination campaign are enabling these so-called Republicans to flirt with the possibility of contested primaries and caucuses.”…
“While President Trump would win re-nomination it wouldn’t come quick and it wouldn’t be inexpensive. Any contested re-nomination campaign—even a forlorn hope—would only help Democrats,” Williams wrote. “Accordingly, I am asking for your support to take the unprecedented step of amending the rules to close loopholes in the re-nomination campaign, including Rule 40.”…
Williams wants the RNC to change the rules, endorse Trump and declare him the de-facto nominee, heading off any primary challenge. But such a move, while possible, could be complicated and generate criticism that the president is engaging in the sort of establishment election-rigging he decried on the campaign trail in 2016.
Yeah, but that’s not really inconsistent. The point of populism isn’t to make government better, it’s to let the people who’ve been frozen out of power enjoy the same corrupt perks that the establishment’s been enjoying for decades. If the DNC could put a thumb on the scale for Hillary in 2016, why can’t the RNC throw the scale out the window for Trump in 2020?
The South Carolina GOP is already toying with the idea of canceling its own 2020 primary, maybe fearing that events this year will sufficiently weaken Trump that Nikki Haley might jump in and try to beat him on her home turf. Now here’s a member of the RNC proposing canceling all primaries. If nothing else, that would be potent symbolism for how thoroughly the party’s establishment has been coopted, and corrupted, by Trump. In 2016 the mystery was whether Washington Republicans might connive to deny him the nomination despite his support among Republican voters. In 2020 the mystery is whether they’ll connive to deny Republican voters even a symbolic opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with him. Embarrassing. But as I say, not exactly inconsistent.
Trump would crush anyone who ran against him, unquestionably, but I can’t decide whether Romney would fare better or worse than the average challenger. The fact that he’s known nationally from his 2012 presidential run is a strong case for “better.” The problem with Flake or Sasse or even Kasich primarying Trump is that most of the public, including Republicans, have never given them more than a moment’s thought. They’re lightweights. Romney would be a — well, “heavyweight” is overstating it, but a middleweight, certainly. Some people who dislike Trump but who wouldn’t get off the couch for John “Who?” Kasich might show up for Mitt.
But Romney’s name recognition is a double-edged sword. Republican voters have a grudge against him that they don’t have against the others, namely, he let them down by losing to Obama. Never mind that many righties thought he ran a good enough race that they expected him to win on Election Day 2012, the polls be damned. And never mind that the obvious reason Romney lost wasn’t that he refused to “fight,” as populist legend has it, but that he was far removed on economic and cultural policies from the white working-class voters who rallied to Trump in 2016. (Never mind that he got a larger share of the popular vote than Trump did too, against an incumbent president no less.) He has the stink of weakness on him. And not just weakness but treachery: His habit of slamming Trump during the 2016 primaries, reconciling with him, quietly accepting his endorsement during his Senate run, and now blasting him before he’s sworn in as a senator reeks of selfishness and connivance. Sasse, Flake, and Kasich can at least claim consistency in their posture towards Trump. How “principled” could Romney’s run as the principled opposition be under these circumstances?
The standard argument for canceling primaries involving an incumbent president is that a challenge will weaken him, lifting the opposing party’s chances of winning the general election. Could be. But there’s a chicken-and-egg problem in that. Do primary challenges weaken presidents or do weak presidents invite primary challenges? That is, does the establishment Republican interest in primarying Trump signal such broad dissatisfaction with him on the center-right that he’s likely to lose in November 2020 even if no one ends up running against him? And even if someone does, are the modern precedents relevant here? Ford was primaried by Reagan in 1976 and lost the general election; Carter was primaried by Kennedy in 1980 and lost the general election; Bush was primaried by Buchanan in 1992 and lost the general election. But Reagan and Kennedy ran as populists and ideologues, galvanizing voters who felt disempowered by the establishment status quo. Romney is the epitome of the establishment status quo. He’d be fine for an anti-Trump protest vote but he’s not galvanizing any movements. Another thing: Both Reagan and Kennedy won multiple primaries against the presidents they challenged, fighting long contests that put the nomination in doubt and deepened the party divide. Romney wouldn’t win a single state against Trump except Utah. How deep and durably would a party split between him and Trump run, really?
All of which explains why Romney isn’t going to challenge him. He’d lose badly and he’d be viciously insulted ad nauseam in the process. If there’s a 2020 angle to this morning’s WaPo op-ed, this is it:
Romney thing is just this: he’s ostentatiously shorting Trump, ie, betting he is impeached/convicted or forced to resign. And reminding party he would do all the usual stuff the donors and activists want without the drama. And figuring that’s how he wins nomination in ‘20.
— Richard Yeselson (@yeselson) January 2, 2019
He’s ready to carry the Republican banner just in case Trump won’t, or can’t, in 2020. Even then, though, I don’t know why he thinks he’d be the party’s choice over Nikki Haley or Mike Pence. Declaring Trump a disgrace to the office in the pages of the Washington Post basically makes him a nonstarter for the nomination if Trump decides not to run. Aside from the fact that he’s already lost a national election, the nominee will need the support of Trumpers and Romney has now gone out of his way to make enemies of them (again). Haley knows how this game is played. She continues to espouse mainstream pre-Trump conservatism on most things but she stays on Trump’s good side and panders lightly to nationalists to stay on theirs:
Congratulations to Brazil’s new President Bolsonaro. It’s great to have another U.S.-friendly leader in South America, who will join the fight against dictatorships in Venezuela and Cuba, and who clearly understands the danger of China’s expanding influence in the region.
— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) January 2, 2019
I think the best case for canceling the 2020 primaries is the one made by Benjy Sarlin, that a primary challenge to Trump might create headaches for purple-state Republicans downballot like Susan Collins and Cory Gardner. They don’t want to be caught between Trump on the one hand and Mitt Romney on the other, wanting to endorse the latter but knowing the GOP base would be incensed if they did. On the other hand, that’s a potential problem for both parties whenever an incumbent president is on the ballot. There’s always a chance of a discomfiting primary insurgency that will force Senators and Representatives to take sides, alienating voters from within their own parties. If the prospect of a presidential primary is too dangerous for the party’s downballot candidates then primaries against incumbent presidents should always be canceled regardless of who’s in office. No doubt populists will be fine with that rule in the future when a centrist from their party is once again in the White House and up for reelection.