Flies on an Elephant’s Back

Bill Weld announced his Republican primary challenge months ago. As of yesterday morning, Joe Walsh is in. Mark Sanford is thinking about it, and will decide in the next week or two. Should Donald Trump be concerned? Break out in a cold sweat? Or mostly disregard?

A primary challenge is deadly. Since primaries were invented in the early 20th century, an incumbent president has never lost a single primary or caucus and gone on to win re-election.

It’s very hard to prevent a incumbent from being re-nominated if they’re determined to proceed. Trump controls the party apparatus. There’s no getting around it. The Republican National Committee and Trump’s re-election campaign are one in the same.

So our question is whether Weld, Walsh, and Sanford represent flies on an elephant’s back, or whether they could do well enough to make it almost impossible for Trump to win in November 2020.

You can break previous challengers into three groups:

Big Foots:

Teddy Roosevelt (1912), Robert F. Kennedy (1968), Ronald Reagan (1976), Ted Kennedy (1980)

If someone like this goes after you, it’s a sign of extreme weakness. They aren’t running to make a point, they’re actually convinced they can take the nomination.

Roosevelt won 9 of the 11 states contested, including Taft’s home state of Ohio. Under current rules, he’d have won the nomination*, being able to openly contest a far larger number of states. Back in 1912, the party bosses controlled the other 37 delegations, and Teddy was pushed away. He ran as a third party candidate and finished ahead of Taft, but second to Woodrow Wilson.

*Except for the 22nd Amendment. TR would be ineligible having completed almost two full terms.

Nobody tried this again for decades. If a guy on Mt. Rushmore couldn’t beat an incumbent, who could? Then Vietnam happened. Lyndon Johnson had divided his party. This was not like now. The Never Trump crowd is small. Even if you add back in those who changed their registration to Independent in the past couple years.

As Harry Enten pointed out the other day, Trump is at 88% approval among Republicans. At the same point in 1967, LBJ was at 53% with Democrats. First Gene McCarthy (see more on him below) took a swing. Then after McCarthy made New Hampshire way too close, RFK belatedly joined the race.

Johnson abdicated within two weeks. But he still controlled the nomination process. Pre-1972, you couldn’t win enough delegates from open contests. Vice President Hubert Humphrey won without competing in a single primary or caucus. Whether Kennedy could have done what McCarthy couldn’t at the convention is open to historical debate. My guess is no.

Reagan made Gerald Ford fight like no other incumbent has to keep his place. In 1976, he was able to openly contest the majority of states, and the nomination was not determined until the convention.

Ford was viewed as weak, the economy had suffered through an inflation-ridden recession, and the incumbent had the distinction (or lack thereof) of becoming president without having been on the ticket in the previous election.

While Reagan didn’t win the nomination, he left Ford significantly injured, trailing Jimmy Carter by over 30 points in mid-summer, before he rallied to make it close.

Finally, in 1980, Carter had to deal with a challenge from the heir to the Kennedy Dynasty. From the moment his brother was shot at his 1968 California primary victory party, Ted’s candidacy was a when, not an if. Richard Nixon was convinced he’d have to deal with him in 1972.

Even after a young woman drowned in his car, he was still considered a top contender. When he opted out for 1972, he became the front runner for 1976. Then he passed again. Declaring his candidacy in the fall of 1979 was a clear signal the unpopular Carter was in trouble.

Kennedy quickly took the polling lead before falling back once voters saw the candidate wasn’t quite equal to the myth. The Iran hostage crisis actually helped Carter in the short run, as voters rallied around the flag. Kennedy eventually won some primaries, and Jerry Brown piled on mid way through, but this wasn’t as close as Ford/Reagan.

Carter then got obliterated by Reagan in November.

I don’t think there are any current Republicans with the stature Roosevelt, Reagan, and the Kennedys had at the time of their respective challenges. Nikki Haley is probably the closest. She finds herself in a position not entirely different from RFK’s in fall 1967.

At the moment, she and Mike Pence are the front runners for 2024, much the way Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey would have been for 1972 had Johnson continued forward. Kennedy wasn’t willing to risk it then, and half the party was already against LBJ.

She doesn’t have the option of waiting to see if Weld or one of the others can embarrass Trump in New Hampshire. Kennedy got severely criticized for letting McCarthy go first. But with a later calendar and only a few states having open contests, it was technically feasible.

Roosevelt, Reagan, and Ted Kennedy were all in or making it clear they would be in by now. We aren’t going to see a Big Foot challenge in 2020.


Estes Kefauver (1952)*, Gene McCarthy (1968), Pat Buchanan (1992)

You don’t have to be a once or future president, or even a Kennedy to make an impact. Harry Truman wasn’t sure if he was going to run again in 1952, but Kefauver beating him in New Hampshire made the decision for him.

McCarthy is the most responsible for ending LBJ’s career. Bobby Kennedy just stuck the final dagger in. And many of us remember Pitchfork Pat Buchanan as a thorn in George H.W. Bush’s side. From getting too close for comfort in New Hampshire, to demanding a prime time speaking slot at the convention, Buchanan was a big part of Bush’s 1992 collapse and defeat.

These three weren’t nobodies. Kefauver got famous in 1950 when he headed a Senate committee investigating organized crime. This was the first time congressional investigations became must see TV viewing.

McCarthy was once of the first Democrats to speak out against the Vietnam War, and challenged Johnson as the candidate of the anti-war movement. They’d tried to recruit RFK first, and chose McCarthy as a backup. He was able to recruit tons of students and other young people to campaign door-to-door in New Hampshire.

While he wasn’t a senator like Kefauver and McCarthy, Buchanan was well known and very media savvy. He’d appeared regularly on television for years, and served in the White House communications office for both Nixon and Reagan.

Of the three, Buchanan was the least likely to mount a successful challenge, and the only one who didn’t win a single primary or caucus. But he still knew exactly what to do to maximize his impact.

Kefauver finished second in the 1956 nomination battle. So did Buchanan in 1996. McCarthy also tried again in 1972, though he was a distant fifth. Kefauver got a consolation prize, winding up on the ticket with Adlai Stevenson, after winning an open fight at the convention against one John F. Kennedy.

Truman was wildly unpopular in late 1951-early 1952. The Korean War was stalled out. Americans were really tired of wars. We’ve covered LBJ’s situation. Bush was dealing with a slow economy and anger inside the GOP after he went back on his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge.

Trump hasn’t taken the country into a new, costly, bloody, foreign war. The economy hasn’t crapped out on his watch. He pushed through a tax cut.

This is likely why John Kasich, Jeff Flake, Ben Sasse, and others who might qualify as an Assassin have decided to remain on the sidelines. Whether waiting for 2024 or just not interested in contesting Trump right now, the type of candidate who can truly contest a primary isn’t running yet.


Pete McCloskey (1972), John Ashbrook (1972)

We’ve finally reached our historical analogy for the current group, though it’s really not fair to McCloskey and Ashbrook.

Both were congressmen, a designation that normally doesn’t lead to strong results in presidential contests. McCloskey went at Nixon from the left, pushing for a quicker (i.e. immediate) exit from Vietnam. Ashbrook took him on from the right, objecting to the Environmental Protection Agency, wage and price controls, and several other policies you’d never expect a Republican president to pursue.

Each would stay in congress for another decade after the primary challenge. While they wound up as historical footnotes, they weren’t washed. However, their lack of impact seems to have discouraged others. Until now, no other candidates outside the Big Foot or Assassin categories have attempted a primary challenge.

McCloskey vowed he would exit the race if he couldn’t reach 20% in New Hampshire. He got 19.79% and was apparently allergic to rounding up, so he dropped out. Ashbrook got just shy of 10%, but stuck around until his numbers repeated in Florida and California.

Being primaried on both the left and the right may have paradoxically helped Nixon by placing him squarely in the center of his party. He went on to win one of the couple largest landslides in American electoral history, taking 49 states and a well over 20% popular vote margin.

Weld, who last held elective office in the Bill Clinton years, ran on the Libertarian ticket in 2016. He doesn’t even slightly resemble the modern Republican Party. I think he’s the lesser McCloskey here. He’s hoping to get New Hampshire independents to turn out for him, but the very competitive Democratic primary will get in the way.

He won’t be a factor in Iowa, Nevada, or South Carolina under any conditions. As mentioned above, the current timeline doesn’t make it possible for a more plausible candidate to pull an RFK and enter the fray after a surprise finish for Weld in New Hampshire.

Walsh is on a repentance tour. As he admitted to George Stephanopolous yesterday, he’s guilty of the very type of incendiary comments that make Trump unacceptable to voters who would vote against him in a primary.

While Ashbrook represented the right wing in the gap between Goldwater and Reagan, Walsh is saying he was just kidding when he sounded like Trump, and that he’s regretful for doing his part in steering the Tea Party from conservatism to Trumpism.

Nothing like the joy of self-discovery. It’s great daytime talk show fodder. It’s not a credible primary challenger.

Sanford has the distinction of having his first political career blow up due to an extramarital affair, and his second get derailed by Trump supporting his congressional primary challenger.

If the first thing hadn’t happened, Sanford would have contended for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination as a legit possibility. If not for the second, he would have found himself trying to keep his House seat right now.

Ostensibly, he’s (potentially) running on an anti-deficit platform. If there’s one policy thing Trump has done to offend traditional conservatives, it’s to make Barack Obama, Reagan, and George W. Bush look like examples of fiscal rectitude.

But even Paul Ryan gave up on deficit control. And I can’t imagine this is a solid primary challenge issue.

At the moment, Trump has three potential opponents. One is less a Republican than Bernie Sanders is a Democrat. The other two are challenging Trump’s sanity and fitness for office as a fellow bomb-thrower, and fellow adulterer.

Pending the arrival of new prospects, the current batch of flies will serve mostly to make Trump look like a giant elephant by comparison. If any draw even the slightest trickle of blood, the president is far weaker with the Republican electorate than even his biggest detractors think.

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