President Donald Trump.
President Donald Trump.
Doug Mills/The New York Times

Trump’s GOP critics eye a potential primary challenge

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WASHINGTON — President Trump loves to boast about the political opponents he vanquished in the lead-up to the 2016 election, and the opponents he plans to defeat as he runs for reelection in 2020. Senator Bernie Sanders? He’d beat him. Oprah Winfrey? No problem.

But analysts say the president could be discounting a more unexpected opponent — a Republican who could challenge him in the primary.

Shoots of rebellion have become visible even before the 2018 snows have melted in New Hampshire, two years before the traditional first-in-the-nation primary. If strong challenges do emerge, it could be the first time since 1992 that an incumbent president has been forced to grapple with a real primary contest.

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Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who once compared Trump to Joseph Stalin on the Senate floor, is speaking in the Granite State on March 14, as part of a “Politics and Eggs” speaker series that’s a favorite for presidential hopefuls.

Ohio Governor John Kasich, a frequent Trump critic and former presidential candidate, recently announced a “fireside chat” this April at New England College in Henniker, N.H. — where Kasich has a residual team in place after his 2016 second-place primary finish behind Trump.

Plenty of speculation also surrounds former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who is now running for US Senate in Utah, even if a third presidential run for him may seem far-fetched.

Mitt Romney walked during a tour of Arches National Park, near Moab, Utah.
Mitt Romney walked during a tour of Arches National Park, near Moab, Utah.
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press/file

“There has been so much concern expressed about this president’s ability to represent Republican values and Republican principles that it’s no surprise that people are looking at a primary run,” said Jennifer Horn, former head of the New Hampshire GOP. “Whether or not that comes to fruition, it’s too early to tell. But I would not be surprised.”

Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, said the president is “definitely vulnerable” to a primary challenge in the state.

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Levesque cited a recent poll from the New Hampshire Institute of Politics that showed 23 percent of Republicans in the state have an unfavorable view of Trump and 21 percent believe the country is on the wrong track — an usually high number among party loyalists.

Another worry for Trump in New Hampshire: It has an open primary that allows independents, who dislike Trump at a much higher rate, to vote in a GOP race.

“One out of every four Republicans in the state are unfavorable to the leader of their own party, and if you throw in independents the number gets much larger,” Levesque said. “This is a big deal. This is a major situation.”

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Some dedicated anti-Trump Republicans have even discussed the idea of a “spoiler” candidate, who could batter the president before he faced the Democratic nominee, even if he or she did not have a reasonable chance of unseating the president.

Trump’s resounding victory in New Hampshire in 2016 firmly established him as the front-runner on his way to a nomination that has completely upended Republican politics.

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The state, which prides itself on being a wise adjudicator of all things presidential, has often been more resistent to conservative firebrands than other early deep-red primary states such as South Carolina. Trump broke the mold in his historic run to the White House.

Now, Trump is fending off scandal after scandal in the Oval Office, including multiple accusations of sexually aggressive behavior by the president and new accusations from a porn star that she was paid to keep silent about an affair she had with Trump.

But it’s the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign had contacts with Russian officials that still holds the potential to ruin his presidency.

This could explain the early test runs by Flake and Kasich. Though no Republican has formally announced interest in taking on Trump, political operatives in New Hampshire say some potential Trump challengers have been occasionally checking in with their allies in the state.

Ohio Governor John Kasich helda book signing after discussing his new book "Two Paths: America Divided or United" at The New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown, NH last April.
Ohio Governor John Kasich held a book signing after discussing his new book "Two Paths: America Divided or United" at The New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown, N.H. last April.
Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe/file

“People who have friends here still have friends here, and they’re keeping in touch with more than just a Christmas card,” said Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire operative. “We’re on people’s Rolodex. No one’s asked me to work on any campaign or anything but there’s people who are aware of our area code and what it means.”

But another cohort of New Hampshire Republicans is adamant that the actions of Flake and Kasich are purely self-interested, a way to stay in the limelight as Trump continues to shape the party in his own image.

The fevered speculation about the Russia investigation could prove to be just hype and national data show Trump is still on firm ground within the Republican Party at large.

The latest national poll from McLaughlin & Associates, a conservative D.C. polling firm, said Trump had a 93 percent job approval rating among ultraconservative Republicans, who often dominate the GOP primary voter pool.

John McLaughlin, who runs McLaughlin & Associates, called talk of a primary challenger just “noise.”

“Jeff Flake has about as much of a chance of beating Donald Trump in New Hampshire as I do,” McLaughlin said. “The differences that the Flakes and Kasiches of the world have with Trump are just not where Republican primary voters are these days. The voters agree with the president.”

Senator Jeff Flake spoketo reporters at the Capitol in Washington.
Senator Jeff Flake spoke to reporters at the Capitol in Washington.
Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times/file

Since the 1950s, only six presidents have faced significant primary challenges in their bids for reelection, the most recent being populist Pat Buchanan’s run against Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1992.

Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy ran an insurgent campaign against Democratic President Carter in 1980. Although Kennedy’s bid failed, it seriously weakened Carter and contributed to Ronald Reagan’s sweeping victory.

Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee who has refused to support Trump, said he would be “on board with anyone” who ran against Trump in the primary.

Cullen backed the idea of a “sleeper candidate” who could push Trump to the edge, even with the knowledge that this candidate would be unlikely to snatch the nomination from the real estate mogul and former reality TV star. Others described such a scenario as a “suicide mission.”

Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist in New York, said he also could see someone running a token campaign just to enrage Trump.

One surprising name that has shown up in 2020 speculation: Vice President Mike Pence, the former governor of Indiana. Pence has become a force on the fund-raising circuit and has criss-crossed the country for Republican candidates in the 2018 midterm elections.

Pence has also largely remained out of the Russia investigation fray, in part because he joined the Trump campaign much later than others.

Vice President Mike Pence addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference at the Washington Convention Center on Monday.
Vice President Mike Pence addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference at the Washington Convention Center on Monday.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When asked, Pence has repeatedly swatted down any suggestion that he would run against Trump in 2020. But in a rare moment of levity, Trump jokingly alluded to the possibility of a Pence 2020 campaign during a speech at last weekend’s Gridiron Dinner for political insiders in Washington, which Pence also attended.

Trump said Pence “starts out each morning asking everyone, ‘Has he been impeached yet?’ I don’t like that.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly listed the source of polling data that showed nearly a quarter of New Hampshire Republicans have an unfavorable view of his leadership. The poll was by the by the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.