A Democratic-wave election this November would create a narrow chance for political ramifications beyond the confiscation of Paul Ryan’s gavel. Former GOP strategic wizard and #NeverTrump ultra Mike Murphy suggested it at Politico in a piece entitled “How to Primary Trump in 2020.” Conceding that Trump’s GOP support is mighty strong at the moment, he argued there’s one thing that could change the equation:
Any Trump primary isn’t about polling data today, it’s about polling data in late 2019. What could make those 2019 numbers far different than today’s? A Republican wipeout in the 2018 midterms. Such a disaster, which is certainly now possible, would destroy Trump’s brand as a “winner” and smash the GOP’s D.C. apparat. We conservatives would lose control over the House appropriations process and watch the Democrats gleefully torment both the White House and our political allies with endless investigations and subpoenas. Even if we hold the Senate in November, a very nervous group of Republican senators would eye their own loss of majority when they face 2020’s dire Senate map, chock-full as it is of Democratic leaning states. None of this is a recipe for Republicans to stagger home from what could be a very long election night this November and immediately snuggle up to the president. Instead, Trump will slide across on GOP balance sheets from very imperfect asset to huge scary liability.
Viewing one’s president as an electoral anchor does not always guarantee a primary challenge. The last two presidents who had really bad first midterm elections — Bill Clinton (his party lost 53 House seats in 1994) and Barack Obama (63 lost House seats in 2010) went on to win renomination without opposition — and for that matter, reelection as well.
Conversely, the last president to face a serious primary challenge, George H. W. Bush, had a reasonably sunny midterm in 1990 (his party lost just nine House seats and a single Senate seat). And the president before that who had an even more serious primary challenger, Jimmy Carter, also had mild midterm losses in 1978 (15 House seats and three Senate seats), considering the huge majorities Democrats had going into that election. (And yes, Gerald Ford technically presided over a calamitous midterm for Republicans in 1974 before nearly being defenestrated by Ronald Reagan in 1976, but having taken over from the disgraced Richard Nixon less than three months before the midterm, nobody blamed Ford for the outcome).
So if not bad midterms, what could lead to a primary challenge for Trump?
The most obvious is intraparty ideological conflict, which was central to the primary challenges to Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Poppy Bush. When Trump first won the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, to the shock of most Republican elites and to the horror of many conventional conservatives, you might have predicted he would have struggled to master his party even in the unlikely event he won the White House, particularly considering the power congressional leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell appeared to hold. But as is now clear, the GOP has been consolidating its support of Trump ever since then, despite the massive overrepresentation of #NeverTrump holdouts (like Murphy) in the national political news media. And Trump’s support is strongest in the intensely conservative precincts that would be the most likely source of an intra-GOP primary challenge. (Think about it: when was the last time a Republican president drew an intra-party challenge from “the center?” It was Pete McCloskey’s puny race against Richard Nixon in 1972).
If an ideology-based “GOP Civil War” isn’t likely between now and 2020, and it’s not, then is there anything that could spar a revolt? Presumably disclosures of really terrible “high crimes and misdemeanors” could do the job, and it’s possible, though unlikely, that personal scandals involving Trump could finally matter to Republicans. But the really plausible nightmare for Republicans is Murphy’s scenario of a 2018 outcome so bad that it exposes Trump to congressional investigations that create a strong impression that he’s guilty of impeachable or at least quasi-impeachable offenses, and drive down his 2020 numbers to a dangerous level.
And that’s the magic formula for Trump becoming vulnerable to a primary challenge in 2020: overpowering evidence that, having led his party to a midterm disaster, he’s in the process of leading them to an even bigger disaster in 2020.
Terrible electability indicators had as much to do with Ted Kennedy’s challenge to Jimmy Carter as liberal disgruntlement with the peanut farmer’s centrism and conspicuously evangelical religiosity. And four years earlier, Gerald Ford looked like a sure loser to Carter (though he eventually made it a close race), which encouraged Reagan to try to push the appointed Veep and accidental president aside.
You could see the same thing happening to Trump, in theory at least. All the things that have made conservatives cleave to him would be imperiled by a bad midterm followed by a doomed-looking presidential race: his conservative appointments, his ability to sign conservative tax legislation, his power to kill regulations, his hostility to international organizations and treaty obligations. If Republicans lose enough control of the Senate in 2018 to forfeit the ability to rubber-stamp conservative Supreme Court Justices, or worse yet, if it looks like Trump’s a sure loser to some Democrat who will pack SCOTUS with baby-killing homophiles for decades, will conservative white evangelicals stay in his corner? Why would they?
The possibility of a full-on GOP panic after a bad midterm would be significantly enhanced by the fact that the performance of the party in 2018 and 2020 will determine its ability (or inability) to dominate redistricting after the decennial census.
Having said all that, GOP antipathy to Trump would not guarantee a serious challenge to his renomination. The conditions Murphy places on a viable challenge to Trump — a single strong challenger (he drops a hint that Mitt Romney might be up to the job) who has high name ID and a compelling anti-Trump message — would still hold true. And it’s important to remember that any challenge to Trump based on “electability” will have to deal with the extremely high odds the man beat to become president the first time around.
In any event, Democrats dreaming big about 2018 should perhaps dream even bigger. A wave, if it’s high enough, may be sufficient not only to conquer the House and even the Senate, but to threaten the real object of their disdain in the White House. That would be quite the dessert to a midterm electoral banquet, wouldn’t it?