A Trump mutiny? Republican prospects warily eye 2020 presidential run


Steve Scheffler, who represents Iowa on the Republican National Committee, has a warning for anyone in the party hoping to deny President Trump the 2020 GOP nomination.

“We want to protect the integrity of the caucuses and give people the ability to make their case,” he said, referring to the balloting that kicks off the election season next February. But, Scheffler went on, there will be zero tolerance for any Republican who comes to Iowa and “starts bashing the president and his policies.”

“That,” he said, “will be dealt with.”

As Trump looks ahead to his reelection bid, the president enjoys a vise grip on the GOP and its machinery, as well as overwhelming support among Republican voters, with a sky-scraping 90% approval rating. Even harsh critics see little chance Trump will be denied his party’s nomination, barring a dramatic change in fortune.


But some, like Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, see no harm in trying.

“What are they so afraid of?” he said during a recent Iowa swing, even as he denied any personal White House ambitions. “It’s like we have to swear allegiance to the ‘Dear Leader.’

“Why don’t you let us go out there,” he continued, “let people go out there, and challenge and get their brains beat in [if] you’re so all powerful?”

Given Trump’s irredeemable penchant for controversy and a myriad of political and criminal investigations — probes that extend beyond Robert S. Mueller’s inquiry — several potential rivals are eyeing a primary challenge.

Or at least they’re not flatly ruling one out.

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Hogan plans a trip later this month to New Hampshire, which holds the first primary, the kind of move that stokes presidential speculation. Bill Weld, a former Massachusetts governor, has formed an exploratory committee and made the rounds of radio and TV chatting up his possible candidacy. Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich is considering a repeat run, though he’s mindful of the long odds.

“Plenty of people come and say, ‘Please run,’ so we could put some torpedoes underneath the water line,” said John Weaver, a Kasich advisor and fierce detractor of the incumbent. “But those people have never been through a presidential campaign and don’t know how hard it is.”


However unlikely it may seem, Trump has good cause to worry about a primary brawl.

Since 1968, four presidents have faced serious opponents who sought to wrestle away their party’s nomination: Democrats Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter and Republicans Gerald R. Ford and George H.W. Bush. Each was gravely wounded by the fratricidal fighting and all failed to win another term.

By contrast, the presidents who avoided strenuous primary opposition — Republicans Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — all won reelection.

Waste your money, waste your time and go ahead and lose.

— Ronna McDaniel, Republican National Committee chairwoman, daring Republicans to challenge President Trump for the GOP nomination

Inside the White House, aides say Trump has been far more focused on his potential Democratic rivals — and especially the public reception they have gotten — than the prospect of a GOP challenge.

“He has got his base so unified behind him, there’s so little room for an opponent to operate,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which accorded Trump a rapturous reception at March’s annual gathering of the advocacy group. Schlapp’s wife, Mercedes, is a White House communications strategist.

When Trump ran in 2016, he was a political outsider regarded with thinly veiled contempt by much of the Republican establishment. Now that very same establishment — the leaders of the GOP in Washington and states across the country — has fallen in lockstep behind the president and begun marshaling efforts to ensure him a second term.


In January, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution of “undivided support” for the president after reaching an unprecedented agreement to merge the party and Trump’s reelection team into a single unit. Weeks later, the party’s chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, taunted any would-be contestant. “Have at it,” she said at the Conservative Political Action Conference put on by Schlapp’s organization. “Waste your money, waste your time and go ahead and lose.”

Around the country, Trump allies are well positioned to guard his interests.

The former co-chairman of his New Hampshire campaign, Stephen Stepanek, is now head of the state GOP.

In South Carolina, which has traditionally held one of the most crucial Republican primaries, there is talk of cancelling the vote, thus sparing Trump a contest. “Why have taxpayers pay for a primary?” state GOP chairman Drew McKissick said on CNN. “Our party totally supports the president.”

Even those professing neutrality, like Iowa’s Scheffler, don’t hide their desire to shield Trump from attack.

While vague about the consequences — “I can’t tell you that right now” — Scheffler cited two of the president’s well-known nemeses, former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and the state’s late Sen. John McCain, as crossing a line that would not be tolerated ahead of the 2020 caucuses. “It’s OK to have public policy differences,” Scheffler said of Trump’s would-be opponents, but not to be “very negative in tone.”

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Others, however, welcome the prospect of a Republican alternative to the president, as a fallback in the event of a mortal blow from one of several ongoing investigations, or a politically fatal disaster of Trump’s own making.

“It’s not a bad thing,” said Craig Robinson, a former Iowa Republican Party strategist and publisher of a blog on GOP politics. “In four, five, six months, Republicans may be happy there’s another option.”

The prospect generating the most notice of late is Hogan, who just romped to reelection in a state Hillary Clinton carried by 26 points.

Some detected presidential aspirations in his inaugural address, in which Hogan praised McCain, who was laid to rest at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and celebrated his father as the first House Republican to vote for Richard Nixon’s impeachment.

“No man, not even the president of the United States, is above the law,” he quoted the late congressman saying. (Hogan notes he also mentioned his father at his inauguration four years ago.)

Whatever his thoughts regarding Trump — the governor did not support him in 2016 — there was no mistaking his disdain for those “just down the road” in Washington. “Let’s repudiate the debilitating politics practiced elsewhere,” he said, “where insults substitute for debate, recriminations for negotiation and gridlock for compromise.”


Appearing in Des Moines, where he spoke at a National Governors Association employment workshop, Hogan offered a notable contrast to the president, in both form and style. Balding and a bit roly-poly, he has the unpretentious air of a suburban dad-next-door. His jokey self-deprecation — Hogan said he’d planned a subzero walking tour and introduced himself as “the filler” between others on the program — displayed the kind of modesty that Trump distinctly lacks.

In an interview afterward, Hogan insisted he was not laying the groundwork for a 2020 bid, or even giving a White House bid much serious thought. But he left the door conspicuously ajar.

“I just don’t know what the lay of the land is going to look like and, while it’s not something I’m focused on, things can change,” he said. “In the circumstances we’re under right now, who knows what it’s going to look like next month, this summer. In the fall.”

He hopes someone challenges Trump, Hogan said, even if he’s not the one to do so.

“I think there’s a significant portion of people that are concerned about the direction of the party, the future of the party, the future of the country,” Hogan said. “And somebody needs to give voice to that.”

Barabak reported from Des Moines and Stokols from Washington.