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Do the Republican challengers expect to beat Trump?
And can they do it without attacking him?
The Republican field got a lot wider this week. After Chris Christie announced the kickoff of his campaign this week to the thrill of possibly tens of Americans, former Vice President Mike Pence threw his hat into the ring on Wednesday. Doug Burgum, the governor of North Dakota, also announced his campaign. The three announcements come weeks after the long-awaited announcement by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
By my count, that puts the total Republican field at 10 candidates, although there might be a few others who are even fringier than most and off the radar. In addition to the four already mentioned, there are two South Carolinians, Tim Scott and Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, talk show host Larry Elder, and of course, The Former Guy.
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The Former Guy continues to hold a commanding lead with a majority - not just a plurality but an actual majority - of support in national polling. Ron DeSantis runs a distant second with an average of about 21 percent to Trump’s 53 percent. Those numbers are essentially unchanged since I questioned last week whether DeSantis’s flubbed kickoff would generate a polling bounce. Everyone else is statistical noise with no other candidates garnering above five percent or so in the FiveThirtyEight average.
The question that has been on my mind is, “Do these Republicans actually think they can beat Trump?”
Think about it. The one thing that almost all of the candidates have in common is that they treat the frontrunner with only the softest of kid gloves.
Take Mike Pence for example. A Pence Super PAC released an ad that called Trump a “weak man” who “failed the test of leadership” and abandoned our conservative principles,” but the candidate has been far more reserved. In a CNN town hall, Pence gave a tortured answer to a question about whether The Former Guy should be indicted if the DOJ believes that he broke the law.
“Let me be clear: No one is above the law,” Pence said. “But with regard to the unique circumstances here… I would just hope that there would be a way to move forward without the dramatic and drastic and divisive step of indicting a former president of the United States. We’ve got to find a way to move our country forward and restore confidence and equal treatment under the law in this country.”
So Pence says he believes in the rule of law and “equal treatment” unless there are “unique circumstances.” What are the “unique circumstances?” Apparently being a Republican with the support of a majority of the party because I have no doubt that Pence would not have similar sympathy for Democrats like Barack Obama or Joe Biden under the same set of circumstances.
Pence isn’t alone. Nikki Haley was deferential to Trump even after January 6. In recent months, she has said that January 6 was a “terrible day” and differentiated herself from Trump and DeSantis by establishing a pro-Ukraine position, but her criticism of Trump remains circumspect.
For example, in February, she told Politico, “We need to acknowledge he let us down. He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”
But since February, there has been precious little criticism of the frontrunner from Haley. She seems more content to attack DeSantis and vie for the runner-up spot.
Speaking of Ron DeSantis, the governor is attacking Trump but from the right and in ways that will handicap his own campaign if he manages to win the nomination. DeSantis is flirting with the anti-vax crowd and has focused more on anti-immigrant and anti-woke messages than traditional conservatism. His attacks on Trump relate more to vaccines and Dr. Fauci than January 6, for which the governor does not rule out pardoning rioters.
The two candidates who pull no punches in attacking Trump have no chance of winning. Asa Hutchinson called a third Trump nomination “the worst scenario” for Republicans and Chris Christie went on a tear in an attempt to distance himself from the other hopefuls.
Christie’s rant to New Hampshire voters in the Boston Herald is a breath of fresh air from the Trump Appreciation Society that most other Republicans inhabit:
“A lonely, self-consumed, self-serving, mirror hog is not a leader. So now we have pretenders all around us, who want to tell you ‘Pick me, because I’m kind of like what you picked before, but not quite as crazy, but I don’t want to say his name.’ Because for these other pretenders, he is — for those of you who read the Harry Potter books — like Voldemort. He is he who shall not be named.
“Well let me be clear, in case I have not been already, the person I am talking about, who is obsessed with the mirror, who never admits a mistake, who never admits a fault, and who always finds someone else and something else to blame for whatever goes wrong but finds every reason to take credit for anything that goes right, is Donald Trump.”
But does Christie think he can really win? For that matter, does Pence or Haley or Tim Scott? I have different and conflicting opinions on the answer to that question.
For starters, politicians have to have big egos. If you don’t have a big ego, you don’t run in the first place. So yeah, I think that to some extent that most of these people think that there is at least a chance that their campaign could catch fire and they could be the dark horse candidate who wins it all.
But most of them are also realists. They know their chances are slim at best. For most of them, I think that their 2024 campaigns are more about positioning themselves for a more serious run in 2028 when Donald Trump will be out of the picture, either because he lost again in 2024 or, less likely, he would be term-limited by the Constitution.
There is also a wild card that could end up being a hand grenade tossed into the race. The Justice Department has informed Donald Trump that he is under investigation for mishandling classified documents. This may be an indication that an indictment is coming soon.
The Republican candidates are undoubtedly hopeful that a Trump indictment would cause a seismic shift in primary polling. Their hope seems to be that the Department of Justice will remove Trump from contention and then his base will have to flock to a successor.
I don’t think this is a sound plan. In the first place, I don’t think an indictment would cause Trump’s base to abandon him although it would further doom his general election chances. A conviction might not even be sufficient to break the personality cult, and a conviction would be very unlikely before November 2024. In fact, I think a large part of Trump’s rationale for running is that he thinks he can avoid prosecution by being involved in a campaign (although Trump certainly has the ego and tenuous grasp on reality to think he could win).
The second reason is that Trump’s base isn’t really Republican. Trump’s base is loyal to him personally rather than to the party. They won’t necessarily show up for another Republican candidate and they definitely won’t show up for Mike Pence, no matter how guarded he is in his criticism of Trump. Mike Pence will always be the guy who “didn’t have the courage” to give Trump a second term.
Third, if Trump does fail to win the primary, he’s unlikely to throw his support behind the nominee. Knowing what I’ve learned about Trump since 2015, he would rather raze the Republican Party to the ground than let it move past him. That’s just who he is. It’s who he always has been. He’s the mob boss in the movie who screams, “If I’m going down, I’m taking you with me!”
Chris Christie may be the exception to this rule. Christie might well be out for revenge on Trump for spoiling his hopes in 2016, scorning him for a spot in his Administration, and making him the butt of jokes for the past six years. Christie may be hoping to dismantle Trump’s campaign the way he did Marco Rubio’s in 2016.
If the rest of the Republican field is really sour on Trump, why are they not only afraid to attack him but repeating the mistake of 2016 when a very broad field allowed Trump to win the primary without a majority?
The answer, once again, is that they are selfish and egotistical. They each think the other candidates should drop out because they all secretly think, as Trump once said, that “I alone can fix it.” They won’t put their country or party first because see themselves as messiahs or at least as God’s instruments.
So far, the question is academic this year. Even if every candidate except one experienced an attack of extreme selflessness and dropped out, Trump still has more than 50 percent of the vote in almost every state primary poll. Republicans can’t mimic the show of Democratic unity that allowed the party to coalesce around Joe Biden over Bernie in 2020 if the Republican version of Bernie controls a majority of the party.
Do the Republican challengers expect to beat Donald Trump? No, but they do hope that he will go away, if not by 2024 then in 2028. In most cases, this is not because they think he’s a bad candidate or an evil person, but because they want to take his place.
But the Republican Party is firmly within Trump’s grasp and not even the Justice Department will change that. It’s going to be Trump or a veritable dumpster fire of a civil war within the party. Hopefully, only within the party.
Thanks to Steve for picking up the slack for me this week. We took a quick trip to visit my son in the Air Force. He’s doing well and has matured a lot over the past 10 months. The kid who wanted to play with guns and who wanted nothing to do with college is now considering trying to get an ROTC scholarship or getting an enlisted slot for the Air Force Academy. I don’t know where life will take him, but he’s off to a good start.