Sizing Up the NeverTrump Primary

With the 2018 midterms out of the way, it’s full-speed ahead for the 2020 presidential election.

We have already detailed the likely primary candidates among the Democrats. What about the Republicans?

Rarely do we see a race where both sides have genuinely contested primaries. Most often one side is either benefiting from an uncontested incumbent or a clear non-incumbent frontrunner. The 2020 race, on the surface, should be a clear case of an uncontested incumbent, with President Trump running unopposed for reelection.

But of course, even despite the success of the Trump presidency—from the crackdown on immigration, to the numerous wins on trade, to its wildly successful foreign policy, to the expanding economy, or to the record number of confirmed originalist judges at the federal level—there remain ostensibly “conservative” anti-Trumpers who are every bit as delusional as their bedfellows on the Left.

These forces are likewise just as determined to take down Trump as the Democrats, even if, obviously, there will be many fewer candidates running on the Republican side as there are in the Democratic field. Examining this peanut gallery of unworthies is useful, if for no other reason than to prove just how pathetic any attempt at unseating Trump will be.

The Backer
When it comes to the NeverTrump contingent, the most prominent names that come to mind emanate from the ink-stained class of Washington punditry: George Will, Jennifer Rubin, Max Boot, and Kevin Williamson, all of whom have been taken on as token “conservative” voices in otherwise left-leaning legacy media publications. This also includes, of course, those who claim to belong to right-wing publications and thus act as the gatekeepers of “True Conservatism”—Ben Shapiro, Jonah Goldberg, David French, Tom Nichols, and everyone else in the orbit of the National Review/Conservatism, Inc. crowd who spends more time fretting about the president than they do taking on the Left.

But as obnoxious as all of these individuals’ nonstop virtue-signaling and moral preening can be, it must be said that since they do little more than whine (and to an increasingly smaller audience) there is little to fear from them. They keep singing the same song even when no one is left in the audience.

One person is actually dangerous. He’s not only taking active measures to fight Trump’s 2020 reelection bid, he’s taking a great deal of money from the Left to do it.

The man in question, of course, is Bill Kristol, editor-at-large of The Weekly Standard. The former chief of staff for Vice President Dan Quayle and the son of neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol today tweets how life in Donald Trump’s America has brought out his “inner socialist and feminist.”

As the recent bombshell report by Julie Kelly at American Greatness revealed, Kristol’s opposition to the president has brought him into alignment with far-left billionaires who have a history of funding anti-conservative causes. According to a CNBC report, Kristol has created “a political war machine” in the form of his new super PAC, “Defending Democracy Together.”

The group’s purpose ostensibly is to recruit “conservative” candidates to challenge Trump in the Republican presidential primaries. And Kristol is not talking about some quasi-Quixotic perennial candidate, like that flash-in-the-pan 2016 run of former CIA operative Evan McMullin. Kristol has zeroed in on three names in particular.

Kristol’s Culprits
The first is departing Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has made no secret of his distaste for Trump’s very existence. Most likely aspiring to be like his idol, the late Senator John McCain, Flake undoubtedly would love to take up the imagined adulation the mantle of “maverick” may give him in certain quarters, and nothing would secure that more than a run against Trump.

That Flake essentially was run out of office could be both a blessing and a curse for him—on the one hand it speaks ill of his potential reach and likeability but, on the other, Flake will no longer be bogged down by the duties of his own office and will have ample time to devote to harassing the president in 2020. But Flake is genuinely unpopular in his home state of Arizona and his ignominious performance when he nearly derailed Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. That alone could cause a potential Flake 2020 candidacy to . . . well, flake out.

Another would-be Kristol candidate Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. The least-experienced of Kristol’s lineup, Sasse was first elected in 2014 as part of that year’s red wave. Even though Sasse mostly votes in favor of the president’s agenda, like Flake, he has made a name for himself by constantly criticizing President Trump and also shares with Flake the ignominy of a near-betrayal on the Kavanaugh vote. For this and other unclear reasons, Sasse has somehow earned the adoration of the likes of Ben Shapiro, and is thus often touted as “the future” of the post-Trump Republican Party (whatever that means).

Unlike Flake, however, Sasse is still in the Senate and also faces reelection in 2020. It’s the most black-and-white decision ever: Run for a pretty safely guaranteed second term in your own seat, or run against a sitting president that you mostly agree with on paper. Sasse would have to be a special level of stupid to choose anything but the former.

From Sasse’s point of view, re-election both for him and for Trump would be a win-win: When Trump also wins a second term, Sasse gets four more years to virtue-signal, and at least two more years after Trump leaves office to build up his own name outside of the Trump orbit. In the hypothetical (but extremely unlikely) scenario that Trump loses, then Sasse can join in on the “I told you so” choir and shore up more support for a potential 2024 run.

The third and final culprit screams “obvious” as well as “odious.” The mailman’s son, Ohio Governor John Kasich, will also no longer be in office due to gubernatorial term limits. Kasich, of course, was briefly NeverTrump’s last, best hope to derail Trump’s candidacy in 2016. Even when the other major GOP candidates more or less conceded to Trump, Kasich refused to board the Trump train, even as Ohio went for Trump by the largest margin of any presidential candidate since George H. W. Bush in 1988.

Kasich is no longer bound by his office like Sasse, nor need he worry about claims of being forced out by President Trump as Flake must. And as a governor, he has always been outside of the Washington orbit that has led many other previously skeptical Republicans to become much more accepting of Trump due to positive experiences in actually working with him. Kasich has even actively endorsed other anti-Trump, “moderate” Republican groups like “New Way California,” co-founded by his fellow anti-Trumper Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has recently hinted at the possibility of challenging Trump with a third-party run.

In a potential 2020 run, Kasich’s arrogance more than anything else would convince him that he could take on Trump. His second-place finish in the 2016 New Hampshire primary, as well as winning of his own state’s primary (something that even Marco Rubio can’t boast about), will only reinforce his delusions of grandeur. But by this point, with his routine stale as President Trump’s trade policies continue to produce resounding prosperity for the people of Ohio, there is a strong chance that Kasich’s already-dim light will grow even dimmer in 2020.

Also on the Radar
Although these three are the most likely to be marshaled to the cause, there is no shortage of additional, salty, anti-Trump candidates.

Take, for example, the Diet Jeff Flake: Former Tennessee Senator Bob Corker. Corker too made an ungracious exit from national politics in 2018, after spending the previous two years as a vocal Trump critic. But Corker has not shown as much enthusiasm for the idea of such a run as Flake has. Considering that Flake is younger as well, it seems more likely that the only way Corker would run is if Flake chose not to do so. Perhaps he could settle for being prematurely announced as Flake’s running mate, just as Carly Fiorina was with Ted Cruz in 2016?

Kristol is also not past recruiting current governors for his ignoble crusade. In particular, he has been eyeing two well-known “blue state Republicans” who both won resounding re-elections in 2018: Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, and Larry Hogan of Maryland.

Both men have been more muted on the subject of such a run, with Hogan expressing the usual ambiguity while Baker seems more opposed to the idea. It’s easy to see why either one of these men could easily fit the Mitt Romney mold of a soft-spoken moderate, with proven electoral successes in their respective blue states, even though that might not translate as well to a national contest.

At the same time, however, both men will most likely pass up on this crusade for the same reason that now-Senator Romney also won’t run: Since such a misadventure would take place halfway through each of their respective second terms, it would amount to political suicide. Doing so would inevitably draw them away from the business of running their states while also souring their approval among the base, to the detriment of themselves and whichever Republican nominees seek to succeed each of them.

Marching off the Cliff
If any bets were to be made out of Kristol’s small lottery here, Kasich is probably the most likely candidate, with Flake as a close second. Unlike Sasse, Hogan, Baker, and Romney, neither has a current office to worry about ruining through such a run.

Potential candidacies for both Kasich and Flake, however, are most likely dead on arrival. Even as they try their hardest to appeal to the NeverTrump crowd, they both still end up angering that exact audience; ironically, their opposition to Trump now has them opposing the very conservative beliefs that even most NeverTrumpers claim to hold dear.

In Flake’s case, his recent efforts to virtue-signal over the Mueller investigation have led to him deliberately trying to sabotage all of President Trump’s remaining judicial nominees. Beyond how the NeverTrump crowd feels about the president, this massive list of originalist judicial nominees has been one of the main areas where even his harshest critics will give him some credit.

And Kasich has been so determined to prove how “principled” he is, that he recently announced his intentions to veto two bills that passed the state legislature in the lame-duck session: One is a “heartbeat bill” that would outlaw abortions once the fetus’s heartbeat can be detected, and the other is a “stand your ground” bill that would greatly increase one’s legal right to self-defense with a firearm. Because clearly, the most principled choice for anti-Trump Republicans is a “Republican” who now supports abortion and is against the Second Amendment, arguably two of the biggest social issues for Republican voters across the entire country.

Keep in mind, this is all merely a lineup of the usual suspects before they are all inevitably eliminated, because no matter who runs at Kristol’s behest, they are all going to lose bigly. So consider this more of a pre-emptive autopsy than anything else.

Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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About Eric Lendrum

Eric Lendrum graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was the Secretary of the College Republicans and the founding chairman of the school’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter. He has interned for Young America’s Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and the White House, and has worked for numerous campaigns including the 2018 re-election of Congressman Devin Nunes (CA-22). He is currently a co-host of The Right Take podcast.