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Is it a death grip or a limp handshake? President Donald Trump's grasp on the Republican Party grassroots will get its first big test of 2020 next month in Iowa.
Iowa Republicans attending the Feb. 3 caucuses will have the opportunity to cast their preference for the party's presidential nomination. That's different from other recent election cycles, when parties with incumbent presidents have not held true contests or reported accurate results.
Former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld are campaigning against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump is favored, to say the least. Polls show nearly 90 percent of Republicans approve of Trump's job performance, while around 80 percent support his renomination.
For true small-government conservatives, though, there are many reasons to oppose Trump's reelection bid: He has let the national debt balloon uninhibited, failed to replace Obamacare, largely reneged on his promise to wind down our unwinnable wars and regularly bucked the limits of his executive power (not least of which was withholding Congressionally approved aid from Ukraine, the subject of the ongoing impeachment trial).
The two Republican challengers are simultaneously contemptuous of Trump's enablers in Washington, D.C., and sympathetic to the voters who put them in power. They are convinced there is hunger in the Republican base for an alternative to Trump, never mind the polls.
Former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, Republican from Illinois
Walsh - one-term Tea Party congressman from Illinois and a former talk radio host - spent much of last week watching Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate and firing off spicy takes on Twitter, including calling out Republican senators by name. He has little hope the current crop of GOP legislators can be redeemed.
'I think they're too far gone. You gotta be on the record right now about Trump and Trumpism. These people like (U.S. Sen. Marco) Rubio and some who are trying to stay quiet, you can't do that. You either support him or you don't,” Walsh told me last week.
On the issues, Walsh takes libertarian and fiscally conservative stances. He seems less concerned nowadays with many of the divisive culture war issues he discussed in his talk radio career.
Walsh has made increasingly frequent trips to Iowa in the past couple of months, and plans to be here every day until the caucuses.
'I want people to wake up after the caucuses and be surprised and say, ‘Wow, there is a primary going on on the Republican side. I've gotta do well, and I'm staking a lot on Iowa,” Walsh said.
Former Gov. Bill Weld, Republican from Massachusetts
Weld - a former two-term Republican governor from left-leaning Massachusetts - holds out hope that some Republican legislators will snap out of blindly supporting the president, but time is running out.
'I've been predicting for some time that it's not going to go well for Republicans in the legislative elections in 2020. We'll have a Democratic Senate if they just roll over and play dead, so I'm hopeful they won't,” Weld told me.
Weld also has a broad libertarian streak, balanced with an old-school pro-business conservatism. He even ran with the Libertarian Party for vice president in 2016. At the party's nominating convention that year, he promised members he was a Libertarian for life, and wouldn't go back to any other party.
But in a guest column published last week by the conservative blog the Bulwark, Weld gives an impassioned defense of Republican values, and doesn't mention his Libertarian Party stint.
'I've been a libertarian since I was in law school and took up Friedrich Hayek and ‘The Constitution of Liberty,' ” Weld told me.
'The reason I decided to run as a Republican this time is that someone needed to stand up and plant a flag against Trump's misdeeds, and I didn't see anyone else doing it.”
How does a reelection caucus work?
It's hard to say what a bad night for Trump in Iowa would look like. Assuming the president wins a clear majority of Iowa Republicans' support, how many points would his challengers have to siphon off to make a statement?
There's only one modern election that offers a comparison. In 2012, Iowa Democrats reported the full delegate counts from the caucuses, which they did not do in 1996: 98.4 percent for President Barack Obama, 1.5 percent uncommitted.
It looked like a total blowout for Obama, but his figures may have been inflated by party loyalists' maneuvering. The caucus agenda included time for a livestream webcast from Obama, but preference groups to pick a candidate were only held if 15 percent of attendees agreed to it.
Under those rules, only Democrats with a little bit of confidence and knowledge of the process were able to have their preferences counted, as independent journalist and Democratic activist Laura Belin reported at the time.
'The Iowa Democratic Party's caucus rules and procedures put many obstacles before Democrats who aren't satisfied with the president's performance,” Belin wrote on her Bleeding Heartland website.
Disgruntled Republicans will face somewhat different challenges this February. There is no viability threshold, so all the votes will be counted. But the party infrastructure is all-in for Trump - the Republican National Committee voted last year to commit 'undivided support” to the Trump campaign - and caucus chairs might resist efforts to speak in support of other candidates.
A Narrow path to victory against Trump
The hope is that a lackluster tally for Trump in Iowa would generate momentum and national attention for the opposition candidates. Both Weld and Walsh told me they are committed to staying in the race past Iowa and New Hampshire, when several Democrats will likely be dropping out.
Perhaps some unforeseen crisis will change minds and trigger massive turnout to late GOP primaries. Trump's removal from office or a battle at the party convention are extremely unlikely, but maybe not impossible.
Assuming Trump is on the general election ballot, both Walsh and Weld reserve the right to endorse an opposing candidate or even launch a third-party campaign of their own. The ultimate goal, they're both adamant, is to end Trump's presidency.
'I'm dedicating my life to stopping Trump. If it doesn't work out through a Republican challenge in the Republican primary, I don't know what I'll do next. ... I would do anything if I thought it would help stop him,” Walsh said.
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