As Trump strug­gles, mur­murs of 2020 chal­lenge are emerging

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - TRUMP PRESIDENCY - By Steve Peo­ples and Thomas Beau­mont

NEW YORK — Mark Cuban isn’t ready to launch a for­mal cam­paign to chal­lenge Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

Yet Cuban, an out­spo­ken Texas bil­lion­aire who de­scribes him­self as “fiercely in­de­pen­dent” po­lit­i­cally, sees an op­por­tu­nity for some­one to take down the Repub­li­can pres­i­dent, who is in­creas­ingly viewed as di­vi­sive and in­com­pe­tent even within his own party.

“His base won’t turn on him, but if there is some­one they can con­nect to and feel con­fi­dent in, they might turn away from him,” Cuban said. “The door is wide open. It’s just a ques­tion of who can pull it off.”

In­deed, just seven months into the Trump pres­i­dency, Repub­li­cans and right-lean­ing in­de­pen­dents have be­gun to con­tem­plate the pos­si­bil­ity of an or­ga­nized bid to take down the sit­ting pres­i­dent in 2020. It is a her­culean task: No pres­i­dent in the mod­ern era has been de­feated by a mem­ber of his own party, and sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal and prac­ti­cal bar­ri­ers stand in the way.

The Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee, now run by Trump loy­al­ists, con­trols the rule­book for nom­i­nat­ing the party’s stan­dard-bearer and is work­ing with the White House to en­sure a process fa­vor­able to the pres­i­dent.

Yet Trump’s mud­dled re­sponse to a deadly white su­prem­a­cist rally in Char­lottesville, Va., this month has em­bold­ened his crit­ics to talk about the once un­think­able.

GOP of­fi­cials from New Hamp­shire to Ari­zona have won­dered aloud in re­cent days about the pos­si­bil­ity of a 2020 pri­mary chal­lenge from a fel­low Repub­li­can or right-lean­ing in­de­pen­dent. No one has stepped for­ward yet, how­ever, and the list of potential prospects re­mains small.

Ohio’s GOP Gov. John Ka­sich has not ruled out a second run in 2020. Another Repub­li­can and fre­quent Trump critic, Ne­braska Sen. Ben Sasse, last month vis­ited Iowa, which hosts the na­tion’s first pres­i­den­tial cau­cuses. And a hand­ful of wealthy out­siders in­clud­ing Cuban and wrestler-turned-ac­tor Dwayne “The Rock” John­son, are be­ing en­cour­aged to join the fray.

Trump’s com­ments about Char­lottesville “fright­ened” many Repub­li­cans in New Hamp­shire, said Tom Rath, a vet­eran Repub­li­can strate­gist in the state that tra­di­tion­ally hosts the na­tion’s first pres­i­den­tial pri­mary.

“While he has sup­port from his peo­ple, The party itself is not mar­ried to him,” Rath said of Trump.

Trump de­nounced big­otry after the Vir­ginia protests, but he also said “very fine peo­ple” were on “both sides” of the demon­stra­tions, which drew neo-Nazis, white na­tion­al­ists and mem­bers of the Ku Klux Klan. One woman was killed.

Even be­fore the di­vi­sive re­marks, Trump’s pub­lic ap­proval rat­ings were lag­ging. Gallup found in mid-Au­gust that the pres­i­dent earned the ap­proval of just 34 per­cent of all adults and 79 per­cent of Repub­li­cans. Both numbers marked per­sonal lows. And as he lashes out at mem­bers of his own party with in­creas­ing fre­quency, frus­trated Repub­li­can of­fi­cials have raised ques­tions about the pres­i­dent’s po­lit­i­cal fu­ture.

On Mon­day, Maine Sen. Su­san Collins said it’s “too early to tell” whether Trump would be the GOP pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee in 2020. On Wed­nes­day, Ari­zona Sen. Jeff Flake said Trump’s di­vi­sive gov­ern­ing style was “invit­ing” a pri­mary chal­lenge. And on Thurs­day night, for­mer Sen. John Dan­forthof Mis­souri called Trump “the most di­vi­sive pres­i­dent in our his­tory” in a Wash­ing­ton Post op-ed.

Yet there is good rea­son why no sit­ting pres­i­dent since Franklin Pierce in 1852 has been de­feated by a mem­ber of his own party. As is al­most al­ways the case, the most pas­sion­ate vot­ers in the pres­i­dent’s party re­main loyal. And in Trump’s case, ac­tivists across the coun­try are start­ing to come around.

The pres­i­dent has per­son­ally in­stalled his own lead­er­ship team at the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee and in states like Ohio, Penn­syl­va­nia and New Hamp­shire, where new GOP chair­men are more de­vout Trump sup­port­ers than their pre­de­ces­sors.

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