Challenges to Trump in 2020 Starting to Take Shape?

Challenges to Trump in 2020 Starting to Take Shape?
AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File
Challenges to Trump in 2020 Starting to Take Shape?
AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File
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Now that the midterms are a thing of the past, all eyes have turned to the 2020 presidential race and potential challengers to Donald Trump, including those within the GOP. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake — who are both in the process of transitioning out of their current roles — are known Republican critics of the president and rumored to be considering bids for the party’s nomination. But running against an incumbent president has major hurdles, no matter how beleaguered that person may be.

Kasich’s recent visit to Saint Anselm College, located in the key early primary state of New Hampshire, appeared to signal his interest in taking that step anyway. The Manchester event was primarily attended by Republican voters unhappy with Trump’s performance in the first half of his term, according to Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general who endorsed Kasich in his 2016 run for the Oval Office. Rath believes that Kasich is better positioned to run than someone like Flake since he already has an existing organization in place from his last presidential bid.

Kasich remained noncommittal about his plans during the stop. When asked by a student at the college if he would enter the race, he replied, “I can’t tell you because I don’t know what the environment is. What I don’t want to do is to try to go back into it again and then diminish my voice.”

Rath noted, however, that New Hampshire voters who liked the president in 2016 are still very much behind him. He said Trump’s agenda the past two years has given them even more reason to stick with the president.

“I think you’ve got a basis of performance that you can judge him by that you didn’t have before,” said Rath. “I think he’s still the politician who is blunt and tends to be impatient with process. I think he’s attractive to people in some ways because hasn’t been in politics for a long time.”

The same appears to be true in Iowa, the nation’s first voting state in presidential elections. Eric Branstad, who ran the president’s election efforts there and is the son of longtime former governor (and current U.S. ambassador to China) Terry Branstad, said there is absolutely no interest in another Republican candidate challenging Trump. He also noted that trade, an issue that has eroded some of the president’s support in rural red states because of his tariff policy, has not been a huge factor for Iowans.

Having worked for Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Branstad understands the rationale for imposing the tariffs, and asserted that “the Chinese shot themselves in the foot” when they took out a four-page ad in the Des Moines Register to undermine support for U.S. trade policy. “Ever since then it wasn’t an issue. This isn’t the president’s choice. He’s taking a leadership role and fixing” the trade imbalance.

During a meeting at the United Nations earlier this year, Trump raised the issue of China meddling in U.S. elections and said the country was trying to influence the midterms. He said China wanted Republicans to lose because they are unhappy with the administration’s position on trade. The administration later cited the ad in the Register as evidence.

The trade issue is one that has divided Republicans to some extent, but whether it plays prominently in the 2020 race likely hinges on the economic impact of the tariffs and whether Trump can get the Chinese concessions he hopes the policy will leverage.

As for challengers from outside the party, neither Rath nor Branstad sees much of a threat to the president at this stage. Of all the prospective candidates who have come to Iowa thus far, none has generated large crowds — “not even [Joe] Biden,” said Branstad of the former vice president. “Of all visits, he generated the most” interest.

In New Hampshire, Rath notes that “there’s been an awful lot” of Democrats making trips to test the waters and signal their intent. “I think probably the names that poll highest would be names known the best,” he said, citing Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. He added, however, that “you cannot meaningfully poll Democrats at this point.”

Other Democrats who have visited one or both of the early states include Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. Both senators have been rumored to be readying bids for their party’s nomination in 2020 and raised their profiles during the confirmation hearings for now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh by vigorously opposing him.

With Democrats on the left, Trump on the right and only tepid interest, at best, from Kasich and Flake, “you’ve got a sense…that no one is particularly interested in the middle” when it comes to the 2020 race, Rath said. And he believes that an independent challenge to Trump would be difficult “unless you have a very substantial set of assets.” (Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is wealthy enough to self-fund such an effort, but the Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent is considering a bid as a Democrat.)

The midterm results, in which the House flipped to Democratic control, was a good sign for the party, but as the president pointed out, some voters may not have turned out because he was not on the ballot. “I have people that won't vote unless I'm on the ballot, OK?" Trump told Chris Wallace in a Fox News interview that aired over the weekend. Whether his voters show up in 2020 in the same numbers as 2016 remains the looming question for prospective candidates on both sides of the aisle.

Sally Persons is RealClearPolitics' White House correspondent.

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