Joe Walsh, the impetuous former Republican congressman, announced on Sunday that he was making a beyond-long-shot primary bid against President Trump, confirming last week’s report from the New York Times. “I’m running because [Trump is] unfit; somebody needs to step up and there needs to be an alternative,” he explained in an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos. “The country is sick of this guy’s tantrum — he’s a child.”
“Whatever,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh responded in a one-word statement to ABC News.
Walsh, who was elected out of Illinois as part of the Tea Party wave of 2010, then ousted by Democrat Tammy Duckworth two years later, made his name as a loud adversary of President Obama (while gaining some personal notoriety on the left for his inability to make child-care payments). In the years since his defeat, Walsh has remained semi-prominent, sounding off on social media, hosting a conservative talk-radio show, and popping up now and again with an inflammatory comment or two, like the time he labeled President Obama a Muslim in 2016.
Walsh was initially warm to Donald Trump — he memorably promised an armed insurrection if Trump lost in 2016. But since then, he has become a critic of the president, hitting his breaking point last year. “[Trump] lost me for good in Helsinki, when he stood in front of the world and said, ‘I believe Putin and I don’t believe my fellow Americans,’” he told the Times.
“I helped create Trump,” the former congressman admitted to Stephanopoulos. He also made it clear he didn’t expect to unseat the GOP’s unclothed emperor, but hoped his candidacy would reveal the existence of an alternate Republican reality where Trumpism doesn’t reign.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Walsh called Trump’s trade war “narcissistic” and denounced him for his racism, constant lying, and running up the national debt, a favorite Republican issue of yore. He also expressed regret for some of his past comments, including the one about Obama’s religion.
The “incredible reaction” to the op-ed helped prompt Walsh to run, his team claimed to ABC News.
Joining Walsh on his quixotic mission is Bill Kristol, a onetime mighty Republican figure who has become an avatar of GOP Establishment impotence in the face of Trump’s party takeover.
Kristol and Walsh both argue that Walsh possesses the conservative bona fides that the only other primary challenger to Trump thus far — former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld — lacks. This is undoubtedly true. It’s also true that some previous primary candidates have found some success against weak incumbents; think Ronald Reagan in 1976 or Pat Buchanan in 1992.
The problem for Walsh — or any other conservative challenger — is that Trump remains extremely popular with GOP voters. The president’s approval rating among Republicans hovers in the high 80s, and there’s little evidence that his popularity has much to do with his strict adherence to the conservative economic ideals that (supposedly) animated the Tea Party. Walsh may have been part of the Zeitgeist ten years ago, but as many Republicans who have crossed Trump and paid an electoral price can tell you, cutting spending is out and loyalty tests are in. Good luck, Joe.