Staff Columnist

Competitive GOP caucuses in 2020 would be good for America

Several Republicans could be in position to challenge Trump

2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meets with potential supporters outside his helicopter at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Saturday, August 15, 2015.

(KC McGinnis / The Gazette)
2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meets with potential supporters outside his helicopter at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Saturday, August 15, 2015. (KC McGinnis / The Gazette)

Help wanted: Seeking conservative leader with governing experience. Not an entry-level position. $400,000 base salary; housing provided in bustling Washington, D.C. neighborhood. To start your application process, contact Iowa Republicans.

The race is on for the 2020 presidential election. Most of the attention understandably is on the Democrats, but there are a few signs Republicans may have a competitive race as well.

While President Donald Trump maintains a healthy approval rating among Republicans — 90 percent at Gallup’s last count, compared with 43 percent among all voters — there is a strong appetite for a primary challenge in some corners of conservative politics. The prominent commentator and strategist Bill Kristol has said he’s organizing an effort to identify and support an alternative Republican candidate in 2020, and several leading prospects have at least declined to rule out the possibility.

I have made no secret of my disagreements with the administration, and I know many other Republicans who are similarly frustrated. A challenger would provide a powerful opportunity to pressure Trump on the several issues where he has strayed from conservative values and opted to champion bigger government, like federal spending, trade policy, and immigration enforcement. Whether the challenger wins or loses, a competitive and substantive primary season would be good for the party and the nation.

There are Republicans who scoff and cry about party loyalty at any mention of a primary challenge to a sitting president of our own party. Those people either aren’t familiar with GOP history or they are intentionally misleading you. The great President Ronald Reagan launched a formidable campaign against President Gerald Ford in 1976.

So, who might run?

Politicians are notoriously coy about their aspirations to seek higher office, all the more so when they would risk devastating backlash from their own party. A couple of those listed here have explicitly said they won’t run for president. This list is purely speculative, based only on my own observations and analysis.

I considered several questions about each of the political figures I think are worth considering. Have they been critical of Trump at key moments? Do they have conservative policy positions and applicable governing experience? Have they made any connections with potential Iowa caucus-goers?

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• U.S. Sen Ben Sasse is a first-term senator from Nebraska, and has had a varied career in government and academia. Sasse refused to vote for Trump in 2016 and has regularly criticized the administration.

Sasse will be up for re-election in the Senate in 2020. He says he’s unlikely to run for president, but hasn’t flat-out declined. He has visited Iowa to deliver public speeches at least twice since Trump took office, and he’s made a habit of betting on Iowa-Nebraska college football on social media.

• U.S. Sen Jeff Flake chose this year not to seek re-election following his first term, and previously served in the U.S. House. He has been perhaps the most vocally anti-Trump Republican senator in the last few months.

Flake recently said he hopes some Republican will run against Trump in 2020, but pointed to others rather than to himself. As one small Iowa connection, Flake weighed in on this year’s race in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, telling CNN he hoped Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King would lose to Democrat J.D. Scholten, who ultimately fell short.

• Ambassador Nikki Haley announced earlier this year she will soon leave her post as U.S. representative in the United Nations. Before that, she was governor of South Carolina and a state legislator.

Haley criticized Trump during the 2016 nominating process, but wound up one of the few Trump critics to receive a high-profile appointment from the president. She was the most popular candidate in a poll about potential Trump challenges commissioned by the Republican reform group Defend Democracy Together, according to a Politico report.

• U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford was defeated in a Republican primary this year by a pro-Trump candidate who went on to lose the general election in a traditionally Republican district. He previously served a separate stint in the U.S. House and also was governor of South Carolina.

Sanford was one of the House Republicans most critical of Trump the last two years. A week after the recent midterm election, he published a column in the New York Times saying Republicans should “run away from” Trump’s approach to politics.

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• Condoleezza Rice is a former secretary of state and now a professor at Stanford University. A week before the 2016 election, Rice called on Trump to withdraw from the race.

Rice has visited Iowa at least once before for a non-partisan speaking engagements, but she has not often waded into politics since the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. It was recently rumored the Cleveland Browns are interested in interviewing Rice, an avid sports fan, to be head coach.

• Gov. John Kasich is term limited in Ohio, and previously served in the U.S. House. He ran for president in 2000 and in 2016, when he continued his campaign even after it was clear he couldn’t win the nomination as a protest against Trump.

Kasich is the only notable Republican who has openly taken steps toward establishing a 2020 campaign after he made a trip to visit New Hampshire party activists this month. He drew only about 2 percent support in the 2016 Iowa caucuses.

Any Republican challenger to Trump will no doubt face long odds in 2020, but the fights for diplomacy, open markets, and fiscal responsibility are worth the challenge. If you’re up for it, I know a few Iowa caucus-goers who would like to chat.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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