Rum­blings sig­nal GOP in­ter­est in Trump al­ter­na­tive

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY TOM HOW­ELL JR.

Fergus Cullen, a GOP fix­ture in New Hamp­shire pol­i­tics, sent out 150 in­vites to his house party for Bill Weld, the first Repub­li­can to an­nounce a pri­mary chal­lenge to Pres­i­dent Trump.

No fan of the pres­i­dent, Mr. Cullen didn’t go out of his way to in­vite die-hard Trump sup­port­ers, and some sim­ply couldn’t make it. But more than 60 peo­ple showed up and — most no­tably — only three de­clined with some ver­sion of “Thanks, but I’m with Trump.”

“I thought I’d get more,” Mr. Cullen said of Trump die-hards. “It con­firmed for me that peo­ple are open to an al­ter­na­tive. Doesn’t mean they’ll all vote for an al­ter­na­tive, but they are open to hear­ing from some­one else.”

New Hamp­shire is crit­i­cal ground for the “Never Trumpers” who hope to defy the odds and mount an in­tra­party chal­lenge to a sit­ting pres­i­dent.

Mr. Weld, a former Mas­sachusetts gover­nor, an­nounced an ex­ploratory com­mit­tee in Fe­bru­ary and made it of­fi­cial last month by say­ing he is chal­leng­ing Mr. Trump.

Mary­land Gov. Larry Hogan also is eye­ing the race. He stopped at a Pol­i­tics and Eggs event in Manch­ester, New Hamp­shire, re­cently as part of a 16-state lis­ten­ing tour.

Ohio Gov. John Ka­sich, who has flirted with tak­ing on Mr. Trump again af­ter los­ing to him in 2016, is wait­ing in the wings. He said both par­ties are fail­ing to tackle is­sues such as cli­mate change and im­mi­gra­tion.

“There is a mar­ket for an anti-Trump,” said Tom Rath, a former New Hamp­shire at­tor­ney gen­eral and key Repub­li­can Party fig­ure in the state. “But I don’t know how big it is. I don’t know how ac­tive it’s go­ing to be.”

In­de­pen­dents make up 40% of the Gran­ite State elec­torate and can choose ei­ther party pri­mary bal­lot. Those who don’t find a cham­pion on the Demo­cratic side next year could play a role in the Repub­li­can con­test.

“New Hamp­shire rarely likes to do the ex­pected thing. It’s a state that takes its re­spon­si­bil­ity very se­ri­ously and re­ally stud­ies the can­di­dates,” said Stu­art Stevens, a Repub­li­can Party con­sul­tant who is ad­vis­ing Mr. Weld. “There’s a his­tory of in­sur­gent cam­paigns do­ing well there, and I think Bill Weld will do very well in New Hamp­shire.”

Mr. Weld says he is run­ning be­cause Amer­ica “de­serves bet­ter” than Mr. Trump. He cited the pres­i­dent’s bel­liger­ent man­ner, his at­ti­tude to­ward Rus­sia and other eye­brow-rais­ing mo­ments, such as his com­ments af­ter the ri­ots in Charlottes­ville, Vir­ginia. Mr. Hogan is more cir­cum­spect. Speak­ing at St. Anselm Col­lege, he said he is not in a rush to beat New Hamp­shire’s fil­ing dead­line in Novem­ber and that he has no in­ter­est in launch­ing a “suicide mis­sion” while he holds his day job as gover­nor.

Mr. Hogan said he has heard from peo­ple who want him to run, yet he fo­cused on his bi­par­ti­san record in Mary­land dur­ing his Manch­ester stop in­stead of rolling out a stump speech.

“He got good re­views in­ter­nally, in terms of the chat­ter­ing class, but it’s not clear yet what he’s do­ing,” Mr. Rath said.

Any chal­lenge to Mr. Trump is a long shot. National polls sug­gest the pres­i­dent has sup­port from 90% of the party.

A Univer­sity of New Hamp­shire poll in Fe­bru­ary found two-thirds of likely Repub­li­can pri­mary voters in the state would sup­port Mr. Trump and about one-sixth would back Mr. Ka­sich. Mr. Weld drew just 3%.

The poll was taken be­fore the re­lease of the spe­cial coun­sel’s re­port find­ing no con­spir­acy to sub­vert the 2016 elec­tion but sug­gest­ing that Mr. Trump’s at­tempts to thwart in­ves­ti­ga­tions into Rus­sian med­dling might be con­sid­ered ob­struc­tion of jus­tice.

Mr. Hogan said the re­port de­tailed “dis­turb­ing” be­hav­ior. Mr. Weld dubbed Mr. Trump a “one-man crime wave.”

Their con­cerns run deeper than Mr. Mueller’s 448 pages, how­ever. They ar­gue that the party is los­ing its grip on val­ues such as fis­cal and per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity, a hard line on Rus­sia and mak­ing sure “char­ac­ter counts.”

“On ev­ery one of those is­sues, Don­ald Trump is on the other side,” Mr. Stevens said. “That’s true if there’d never been a Mueller re­port, it’s true with the Mueller re­port.”

Former Sen. Bob Corker, a Ten­nessee Repub­li­can who tangled with Mr. Trump be­fore re­tir­ing this year, said a pri­mary would help Re­pub­li­cans fo­cus on bread-and-but­ter is­sues such as re­spon­si­ble bud­get­ing.

“Philo­soph­i­cally, you could look at it and say that it would be a good thing for our coun­try should that oc­cur from the stand­point of is­sues,” Mr. Corker told the Time 100 Sum­mit in New York City. “If you had a real pri­mary, where you had some­one that was re­ally be­ing lis­tened to, and of sub­stance, things that we were talk­ing about — and I could go through a list of them — they would ac­tu­ally be de­bated in a real way.”

It has been a while since a sit­ting pres­i­dent faced a stiff chal­lenge from within his own party, though it’s hardly un­prece­dented.

Repub­li­can Pat Buchanan chal­lenged Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush in 1992 on a plat­form that pre­saged some of the pop­ulist themes Mr. Trump rode to the pres­i­dency. Al­though he cap­tured 37% of the New Hamp­shire vote, he failed to win any state pri­maries.

Sen. Ed­ward M. Kennedy of Mas­sachusetts man­aged to win a few states in his Demo­cratic pri­mary chal­lenge against Pres­i­dent Carter in 1980. The peanut farmer from Ge­or­gia ul­ti­mately staved off Kennedy’s chal­lenge be­fore los­ing in a land­slide to Repub­li­can Ronald Rea­gan, who had chal­lenged Pres­i­dent Ford in the 1976 Repub­li­can race.

Yet a sit­ting pres­i­dent has not been de­nied a nom­i­na­tion that he wants since the 19th cen­tury smoke-filled rooms that pre­ceded the mod­ern pri­mary sys­tem.

“I will be sur­prised if any­body be­sides Trump gets any­where,” said Doug Wead, a con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tor and pres­i­den­tial his­to­rian. “In my hum­ble opin­ion, the me­dia is so suf­fo­cat­ing and stri­dent and they can’t help them­selves. But it drives voters to do the op­po­site. So they will be pro­mot­ing Weld or any­body else, and that will re­bound to Trump.”

The Repub­li­can National Com­mit­tee says there is no rea­son for a di­vi­sive fight.

“Pres­i­dent Trump re­ceived more pri­mary votes than any nom­i­nee in Repub­li­can Party his­tory, and he now en­joys the high­est ap­proval rat­ing in his party of al­most any pres­i­dent in mod­ern his­tory,” RNC spokesman Steve Guest said. “The RNC and the Repub­li­can Party are firmly be­hind the pres­i­dent. Any ef­fort to chal­lenge the pres­i­dent’s nom­i­na­tion is bound to go ab­so­lutely nowhere.”

Mr. Cullen, though, said Mr. Trump should be wor­ried by the rum­blings be­cause ev­ery sit­ting pres­i­dent who has faced a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge in New Hamp­shire’s pri­mary since World War II has failed to win the gen­eral elec­tion.

In ad­di­tion to Ford, Mr. Carter and Bush all los­ing in Novem­ber, two post­war pres­i­dents de­cided not to seek re-elec­tion af­ter a hu­mil­i­a­tion in New Hamp­shire. Pres­i­dent Tru­man de­cided to re­tire af­ter his 1952 loss there, and Pres­i­dent John­son left the race soon af­ter his near loss in 1968.

“One can­di­date will end up serv­ing as the ves­sel for those of us who want to ex­press our op­po­si­tion to and dis­gust with this ad­min­is­tra­tion,” Mr. Cullen said. “And there are many of us. Is it 10, 20 or 37%? Too early to tell.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Former Mas­sachusetts Gov. Bill Weld has been vis­it­ing New Hamp­shire to test the waters for a GOP chal­lenge to Pres­i­dent Trump.

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