Politics

Republicans Who Could Run Against Trump

Like many people, James Comey, the former F.B.I. director, has been thinking about the best way for the Presidency of Donald Trump to end. Interviewed in New York last week, Comey said that his own, possibly “weird” thought is that impeachment is not the ideal course; for one thing, it would let voters “off the hook” in 2020. “We need a clear jump upward, and it will come from tens of millions of Americans,” he told his interviewer, Nicolle Wallace. But Comey put the burden on the Democrats, saying, “They have to win.”

In response, Trump tweeted that Comey had “just totally exposed his partisan stance by urging his fellow Democrats to take back the White House in 2020.” (Comey says that he’s an independent.) He added, “Comey had no right heading the FBI at any time, but especially after his mind exploded!” The date and the circumstances of the alleged detonation were not clear, but the message was: to speak about confronting Trump at the polls is to speak as a Democrat.

There’s some practical truth to that. Given that the Republicans, particularly in Congress, have largely ceded their party to Trump, the 2020 campaign seems headed toward a contest between him and the Democratic nominee. The Democrats now have to decide what kind of candidate they want. But why should the Republicans be let off the hook? Those who don’t share Trump’s more corrosive views often wallow in the perception of their own powerlessness. Yet they have options, if they choose to use them, including one that the Democrats don’t. They can challenge Trump in the primaries.

Trump knows that, which is why his campaign is already working to engineer a preëmptive endorsement in the New Hampshire primary, the first in the nation, from the state Party, which traditionally remains neutral. He could be much more vulnerable by August of 2020, when the Republican National Convention meets in Charlotte, North Carolina, depending on, among other things, how the Mueller investigation develops. (Last week, forty-four former senators, ten of them Republicans, signed an open letter, urging the Senate to uphold the rule of law; it reads like a foreshadowing of a crisis.)

One Republican who has been openly considering a run against Trump is John Kasich, the outgoing governor of Ohio, who was the last candidate to drop out of the 2016 Presidential primaries. He has been to New Hampshire twice recently, and his advisers have spoken out against the attempt to change the state Party rules. Still, Kasich told the Columbus Dispatch last week, “Maybe the Lord will say, ‘John, enough of you for 30 years, enough of you. Go sit somewhere in the corner, shut up for awhile.’ ” He is not alone in this wavering. “I do hope that somebody else runs in the Republican primary,” Senator Jeff Flake, of Arizona, who will retire next month, said in October. But, he added, “I don’t see that happening in my case.” Ten days later, he said, “I’m not ruling it out—but I need a break.”

Perhaps a way to speed matters up is to put some more names on the table. Mitt Romney, once a vocal opponent of Trump, was just elected to the U.S. Senate from Utah, and so he has an active political operation. Romney’s old running mate, Paul Ryan, who is retiring as Speaker of the House, and liked to hint, when convenient, that he was not happy with the President, might want to prove that he meant it. Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, left her job as Trump’s U.N. Ambassador with her dignity intact—a harder trick than winning some primaries—and may be positioning herself for a post-Trump moment. Why wait until 2024? Aside from Romney, several other senators could be potential challengers. Rob Portman, Kasich’s fellow-Ohioan, had considered running in 2016, and withdrew his endorsement of Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape emerged. Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, most recently showed her independence with her “No” vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Susan Collins, of Maine, a frequent Trump critic, voted the other way, but that might prove useful with G.O.P. primary voters. Last month, Bob Corker, of Tennessee, who is also retiring, said, when asked if he might run in 2020, that he hadn’t “ruled it out.” In September, when Ben Sasse, of Nebraska, who talks a lot about his problems with Trump, was asked the same thing, he said that the “odds are a lot higher that I run for the noxious-weed-control board of Dodge County.” But he allowed that such odds were better than zero.

Anti-Trump conservatives, some of whom have been raising money for a potential, still unnamed challenger, attended a conference last week in Washington called “Starting Over: The Center-Right After Trump.” Larry Hogan, a Republican who was just overwhelmingly reëlected governor of Maryland, a blue state, was the opening speaker. Charlie Baker, of Massachusetts, and Phil Scott, of Vermont, are other moderate Republican governors who have been mentioned as Never Trump standard-bearers. For that matter, why shouldn’t Michael Bloomberg, who was once a Republican, run as one again, if only for the chance to take part in primary debates and speak directly to Republican voters? (He was an adept supporter of red-state Democrats in the midterms, outmaneuvering the N.R.A. in some races.) He could remind them that there are other visions of what being a Republican has meant and can mean.

Many people may not see the point, wondering if, at this stage, the G.O.P. is worth reviving. But a national journey away from Trumpism requires some middle ground. So does a healthy electoral system. The obvious cost to potential challengers is that Trump would attack—with tweets and smears. But that tactic works partly because other Republican politicians vouch for him; a real, sustained challenge might reveal what is strength and what is show.

Therein lies what may be the most compelling reason for not just one Republican but several to get into the race: a chance to tell the truth. Without opponents, Trump will saunter through the primaries, plying voters with whatever made-up stories about gangs and the wall and conspiracies he likes.

Last week, Comey said, “All of us should use every breath we have to make sure that the lying stops on January 20, 2021.” Wallace, a journalist who has worked on Republican campaigns, asked, “Would you ever run?” Comey replied, “No,” adding, “You don’t have to run for office to be useful to your country and your community.” “But it helps,” Wallace said. It certainly does. ♦


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