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‘This Is Donald Trump’s Party.’ Republicans Running Against Trump Fail to Divide a United GOP

September 24, 2019, 5:18 PM UTC

“Today the Republican Party has taken a wrong turn, led by a serial self-promoter who has abandoned the bedrock principles of the GOP.”

So said President Donald Trump’s three primary challengers in a joint op-ed for the Washington Post, decrying some states’ decisions to cancel their Republican primary elections and officially throw their full support behind the president.

Former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, former South Carolina congressman Mark Sanford, and former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh are all vying for the Republican nomination, each with their own long-shot campaign focused on redeeming what they see as a fallen GOP.

Weld, the first to launch his campaign, has touted his successes in the 1990s as Republican governor of Massachusetts, a largely blue state. He’s been unabashedly critical of Trump from the start; his campaign launch video includes clips of the president’s most controversial moments in office.

Sanford, meanwhile, is focused solely on debt and spending. His campaign acknowledges that challenging the president is a gargantuan task with little hope of victory. Thus the concentration on debt: “In a longshot effort, it’s best to focus,” said Sanford in his campaign launch video. He’s also criticized the president for turning away from traditional conservative values and striking humility from the White House.

Walsh, finally, presents his campaign as a brave choice to take on corruption. He’s called Trump a “would-be dictator” and criticized the Republican party as becoming a “cult.” Instead of focusing on the party structure, he told CNN he’s going to “take our campaign directly to Republican voters.”

With all this talk of saving the GOP and condemning Trump, the challengers themselves have been attacked with similar language. Brett Buerck, CEO of conservative consulting firm Majority Strategies, told Fortune the candidates are merely “three individuals with a history of self-serving opportunism” who “really don’t represent the Republican party.”

“I think they’re fringe candidates,” he said. “[Trump’s] support among Republicans is wide, it is deep, and it cuts across all demographics. These three gentleman running, they’re not seeking out those voters. They’re seeking out attention from the national press corps.”

Buerck’s firm worked with Trump on the 2016 campaign trail, but is not currently employed by his 2020 campaign. His words, however, echo what the president himself has claimed.

“The three people are a total joke. They’re a joke. They’re a laughing stock,” Trump told reporters earlier this month. “I guess it’s a publicity stunt.”

In truth, the vast majority of the Republican party are behind Trump. A recent Gallup poll found the president’s approval rating rests at 91% among Republicans.

The other 9% consists of those like Republican strategist Rick Wilson, a leader of the “Never Trump” movement and author of Everything Trump Touches Dies. While those behind the president argue Weld, Sanford, and Walsh don’t truly represent the party, Wilson said “their bona fides are frankly much better than Donald Trump’s.”

“None of those men have ever given a lot of contributions to Democrats as Donald Trump has, or supported them for office as Donald Trump did,” Wilson told Fortune, referencing the president’s left-leaning donations in the decades before his political career.

In actuality, Weld, too, has stepped outside the GOP. He endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008, but then reversed his support back to Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. In the 2016 presidential election, he ran on the Libertarian ticket. Still, Wilson said Weld is “absolutely a Republican.”

“The fact that he ran on the Libertarian ticket last time was part of the schism that’s happening inside of the party,” he said, adding that the conservative leadership behind generations of the Republicans was “blown up” by Trump.

“Trumpism is based on a sort of nativism, and a sort of anger at establishments,” said Wilson. It’s a form of populism, he continued, “that has been exemplified since the days of Sarah Palin.”

Looking Back in Time

This type of divide is nothing new. While an incumbent president hasn’t lost a primary bid for reelection in well over 100 years, every one since at least George H.W. Bush in 1992 has seen a minimum of a dozen challengers in the New Hampshire primary, the first in the nation. Some of these candidates only received a couple hundred votes, however, and few continued their challenge beyond a handful of states.

Still, there are a handful of instances where a seriously challenged primary lead to a rough path to the White House. In 1976, President Gerald Ford nearly lost the Republican primary to Ronald Reagan, then went on to lose reelection to Democrat Jimmy Carter. In 1992, Bush faced a far-right challenge from Patrick Buchanan, then eventually lost reelection to Democrat Bill Clinton.

“The parties have had pretty big splits,” Julian Zelizer, author and Princeton University professor of history and public affairs, told Fortune. “A serious primary challenge—even if it’s not successful—sometimes can in the end weaken the coalition behind whoever wins it.”

This isn’t just a Republican trend, either. A number of Democrats challenged President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, eventually turning the tides enough that Johnson announced he would not seek reelection. Richard Nixon went on to beat the Democratic nominee. Then in 1980, Ted Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter, and Carter lost reelection to Republican Ronald Reagan.

Being the most recent instance of an incumbent losing reelection, the 1992 election has drawn comparisons to the upcoming 2020 primary. At the time, however, the GOP’s ideologies were positioned in the reverse of today. In 1992, the challenger, not the incumbent, held the far-right views.

While Bush represented a more traditional conservative base, Buchanan’s campaign “represented a protest against the Republican party establishment—both its policy preferences (free trade, fiscal conservatism, globalism in world affairs) and its style (secular, modest, restrained),” said author and Boston University history professor Bruce Schulman. “In some ways, Trumpism is the inheritor of and fulfillment of Buchanisnism.”

Trump’s challengers, meanwhile, represent a return to traditional GOP practices—what Bush stood for. A better parallel may be to the election of 1972, said Schulman, when Ohio Congressman John Ashbrook challenged President Richard Nixon. Ashbrook claimed Nixon had strayed too far from Republican values and perpetuated budget deficits. He led a weak primary challenge, however, and Nixon went on to win reelection.

Little Hope for 2020 Primary Challengers

Strategists don’t expect Sanford, Weld, and Walsh to become major challengers to the president, either. While they certainly represent a faction of the Republican party, it’s not a large one.

“None of the current challengers are really major figures in the Republican party, so at this point it doesn’t reflect huge division,” said Zelizer. “The party machinery—meaning congressional leaders, the RNC—they’re all squarely behind the president.”

Wilson acknowledged that the Republicans who share his beliefs are a minority, although he estimated the population rests at around 20%.

“There are plenty of Republicans who do not love Donald Trump, but they’re not going to say anything,” he said. “They’re not going to push back against him because they’re afraid of him.”

It’s a phenomenon he refers to as FOMT, or “Fear of Mean Tweets.” The president has been known to attack his critics via Twitter: in August, Trump called his three primary competitors the “Three Stooges” in a tweet mocking Sanford for his 2009 extramarital affair. Such attacks encourage animosity and threaten politicians’ reelection security, said Wilson. “Because of his hold over a large chunk of the base, it’s a very difficult thing for these guys to be brave enough to speak out.”

“We’re never going to be the party we were,” he continued. “There will have to be a sharp break between the populist nationalists of Trump and between the conservatives who comprised for generations the bulk and center of the Republican party.”

In the meantime, however, polls show the vast majority of Republicans are happy with the figure at their helm. According to Gallup, Trump’s job approval ratings among the party haven’t dipped below 80% since December 2017, and have barely fluctuated since the start of his competitors’ 2020 primary campaigns. In fact his current rating, 91%, is his record high, first hit in mid-October 2018.

“This is Donald Trump’s party,” said Buerck, “and he is leading it.”

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