There was never going to really be an actual Republican Primary in 2020 that had much meaning. The sitting Republican President, Donald J. Trump, is running for reelection, and anything short of impeachment or truly abysmal poll numbers within his own party isn’t enough for another GOP candidate to run a serious primary challenge. However, there were two nationally-recognized Republicans who have launched challenges against Donald Trump as the 2020 Republican nominee. Former Rep. Joe Walsh, now a conservative talk show host, and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld have both launched campaigns to challenge Trump in the 2020 Republican primary.
That train, however, may be stalled before it even leaves the station. Reports recently surfaced that four state Republican Party organizations are moving toward canceling their primaries (or caucus, in Nevada) in 2020, as Politico reports:
Republican parties in South Carolina, Nevada, Arizona and Kansas are expected to finalize the cancellations in meetings this weekend, according to three GOP officials who are familiar with the plans.
The moves are the latest illustration of Trump’s takeover of the entire Republican Party apparatus. They underscore the extent to which his allies are determined to snuff out any potential nuisance en route to his renomination — or even to deny Republican critics a platform to embarrass him.
Trump advisers are quick to point out that parties of an incumbent president seeking reelection have a long history of canceling primaries and note it will save state parties money. But the president’s primary opponents, who have struggled to gain traction, are crying foul, calling it part of a broader effort to rig the contest in Trump’s favor.
The move by state parties to cancel a primary in a year where the incumbent President from that party is running for reelection is not unprecedented. It has happened many times before, with both parties:
The shutdowns aren’t without precedent. Some of the states forgoing Republican nomination contests have done so during the reelection bids of previous presidents. Arizona, GOP officials there recalled, did not hold a Democratic presidential primary in 2012, when Barack Obama was seeking a second term, or in 1996, when Bill Clinton was running for reelection. Kansas did not have a Democratic primary in 1996, and Republican officials in the state pointed out that they have long chosen to forgo primaries during a sitting incumbent’s reelection year.
South Carolina GOP Chairman Drew McKissick noted that his state decided not to hold Republican presidential primaries in 1984, when Ronald Reagan was running for reelection, or in 2004, when George W. Bush was seeking a second term. South Carolina, he added, also skipped its 1996 and 2012 Democratic contests.
With an approval rating hovering usually in the 80s with Republican voters, there’s no reason to believe that Walsh or Weld would have been remotely successful with a primary challenge against Trump. Despite the small but steadfast brigade of “Never Trump” conservatives, there just isn’t any appetite among most rank-and-file GOP voters or members of Congress to try and push the President out via a primary in 2020.
The most recently announced opponent of the President, former Rep. Joe Walsh, accused the Republican National Committee (RNC) of colluding with the President to stifle opposition:
“Trump and his allies and the Republican National Committee are doing whatever they can do to eliminate primaries in certain states and make it very difficult for primary challengers to get on the ballot in a number of states,” said former Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), who recently launched his primary campaign against the president. “It’s wrong, the RNC should be ashamed of itself, and I think it does show that Trump is afraid of a serious primary challenge because he knows his support is very soft.”
Unfortunately for Walsh, this is the way the cookie crumbles and most state party organizations will do whatever they can to support the incumbent. In the grand scheme, it’s unlikely that the Trump campaign is afraid of a challenge, but they certainly don’t want one or want to leave the door open to one. Neither Walsh nor Weld has a chance of beating Trump in a Republican primary in any state, and the exercise would suck some time and resources away from the general election battle the GOP will be waging with Democrats in 2020.
State GOP officials, such as Nevada GOP Chairman Michael McDonald, have pushed back against Walsh and say it would be a total waste of state or party resources to hold a caucus there in 2020, and other state party officials in other states have made similar points:
“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,” said Nevada GOP Chairman Michael McDonald. “We should be spending those funds to get all our candidates across the finish line instead.”
Kansas GOP Chairman Michael Kuckelman estimated it would cost his party $250,000 to hold the caucus, money he said can be deployed to win races.
Still, there could be room for embarrassment in other states that don’t choose to cancel their Republican primary in 2020. For example, in 2012, President Obama ceded 41% of the vote in West Virginia to a convicted felon over the issue of coal mining:
Trump aides have long said they aren’t worried about a primary challenge and laughed off his Republican challengers. But the president’s political team has pored over past primary results and is mindful that unexpected things can transpire — such as in 2012, when a federal inmate received 41 percent of the vote against Obama in the West Virginia Democratic primary.
For Trump, West Virginia is a lock. Other states, however, where his popularity is more tepid with GOP voters could offer room for insurgents to steal an embarrassing amount of the vote even if they don’t win. The state of Arizona comes to mind specifically, but that’s on the list of states working to cancel their Republican primary in 2020, probably for that specific reason.
The bottom line is that if you’re a Republican primary voter banking on registering your personal opposition to Donald Trump in a 2020 primary, don’t assume your state will actually be holding one.
We will keep the 2020 Primary Schedule updated for states which decide not to hold a Republican primary next year.