What Would It Take To Challenge Trump In A Primary?
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Mitt Romney will not be sworn in as Utah's junior senator until tomorrow. But he's already launched an opening salvo, an op-ed piece in The Washington Post in which he argues that President Trump, quote, "has not risen to the mantle of his office." Well, the president responded during a Cabinet meeting today.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I wish Mitt could be more of a team player, you know? I'm surprised he did it this quickly. I was expecting something, but I was surprised he did it this quickly.
KELLY: Now, all of this fueled speculation that Romney might be eyeing a primary challenge to Trump in 2020. This afternoon on CNN, Romney denied that's the case.
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MITT ROMNEY: No, I'm not running again. And we'll see whether someone else does in a Republican primary or not. But time will tell.
KELLY: He said he wasn't sure who he would vote for in 2020. And as you heard there, he brought up the possibility of a primary challenger, which raises all kinds of questions about how that might work.
Here to answer those questions is Mike Murphy. He's a Republican political consultant. He has worked on campaigns for Jeb Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mitt Romney. Mike Murphy, welcome back to the show.
MIKE MURPHY: Good to be here.
KELLY: Yeah. You talk regularly with Romney. You've tried to convince him to run again. You going to keep working on him?
MURPHY: Well, I think he'd be an excellent president. But I take him at his word today. And it reflects what I've heard from him, that he's not - this op-ed and what he's doing now has nothing to do with the 2020 race. It's more about being consistent to what he's already said. He'll support the president when, you know, they're aligned on policy. But when the president misbehaves, he's not afraid to criticize him.
KELLY: Now, he did not rule out that another Republican might be tempted to run against President Trump. So let me ask you, what is the precedent for that in recent history for challenging a sitting president in the primary?
MURPHY: Well, generally, you lose. (Laughter) That's the history of it. The most spirited...
KELLY: A brief history.
MURPHY: Yeah, so far. But we're in a different era now, so who knows what the future may bring? And I think the president's political troubles are not over. And we know from the midterms that the president has, you know, shown a weakness in leading the party, and there's concern rising.
But that said, Ronald Reagan in '76 came the closest, and he lost. Although, in all these cases - Jimmy Carter with Ted Kennedy on the Democratic side, et cetera - the nominee is often weakened in the general election because the fact they got a primary shows the kind of political weakness they're in versus the general election. So it's not a good sign.
KELLY: Although, is there maybe some advantage to the party to challenging a sitting president, even if the contender doesn't ultimately succeed? It helps sharpen the party's message going into a general election.
MURPHY: Well, it does litigate what a party ought to be. And if the party is on a path of complete political failure - and I think in the Trump era, some - I would be one of them - would argue moral failure - then you got to have the fight to figure out what you are for the future, even if the immediate election is, you know, not the happy result. So long-term, maybe you need it.
KELLY: You said you believe we're - are in a different era now. So let me ask you, does conventional wisdom apply in 2019 going into 2020? The Trump presidency is uncharted waters in so many ways.
MURPHY: Yeah. No, look, we have never had a reality-show president before. And you don't know if it's cyclical, and things will revert to mean, or this is the new normal. That - that's the open question that's going to get litigated. My guess is the future's a bit of a mix. I think there will be a rotation away from Trump towards something a little more normal, a little more grown-up. But, you know, at this point, that's only a guess.
KELLY: If someone were to consider throwing their hat into the Republican primary ring, is there a better time to do it? Is it best to get in there early?
MURPHY: No, I actually believe that early is a mistake. This is all predicated on the president hitting even more trouble within the party after more political failure. That requires time if that's going to happen. So I think the idea of being early gives you any big advantage is not true.
It's much more about maybe Labor Day, you know, at the end of this year where the president is and is there an opening then. I think the early strategy is not appropriate in a situation where you're trying to deal with what could be a political collapse of an incumbent president in your party.
KELLY: I mean, it's something hearing you, a Republican strategist, saying that, talking about potential collapse of the party. Do you really think that the field is not open, in the few seconds we have left, to somebody challenging him?
MURPHY: Oh, I think it's theoretically open. But the reality of the president's strength at the end of the year is yet to be determined. He's definitely on a declining path, though, after the midterms.
KELLY: Republican political consultant Mike Murphy, thanks so much.
MURPHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.