Politics & Government

How not to primary Donald Trump

President Donald Trump arrives on stage to speak at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Wednesday, June 21, 2017. He remains very popular in this first-in-the-nation caucus state.
President Donald Trump arrives on stage to speak at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Wednesday, June 21, 2017. He remains very popular in this first-in-the-nation caucus state. AP

If there’s a path for a Republican to challenge Donald Trump, it doesn’t run through Iowa.

Sen. Ben Sasse’s foray this weekend into the first-in-the-nation caucus state has already sparked chatter about a potential 2020 GOP primary to unseat Trump. But Iowa’s top operatives say there's no appetite, today, to see any Republican take on the president.

“You know what, Sen. Sasse? I really don’t care what you like,” Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said at a recent Trump rally, swiping at the Nebraska senator over his frequent criticisms of the president. “We love Donald Trump. And if you don’t love him, I suggest you stay on your side of the Missouri River.”

To many Republicans, the idea of a primary discussion six months into any president’s term is laughable—and Sasse, a darling of the Never Trump movement who isn’t the first Republican rising star to visit the state and won’t be the last, has certainly not said he is planning such a move.

That hasn’t stopped Sasse, and his possible ambitions, from attracting attention in Iowa and nationwide, notably as Trump’s disapproval rating hovers around 60 percent and a smattering of Republicans around the country speak openly of their hopes for a run from someone like the Nebraska senator. (“He is the one candidate in the country, if he ran for president, I’d work for him for free,” said conservative strategist Brendan Steinhauser.)

Yet despite Trump’s myriad challenges and the angst his Twitter account causes in Washington, he remains so strong in conservative corners of Trump-friendly states, including Iowa, that party leaders, operatives and grassroots activists say there is no serious on-the-ground discussion of a 2020 challenge at this point.

“There’s going to be some folks in our party who just aren’t going to come around on the president, [but] I don’t think there’s any kind of wholesale movement to look for a candidate in 2020,” said David Kochel, a veteran Iowa operative and chief strategist on Jeb Bush’s presidential bid, who has himself been critical of Trump in the past. Trump’s tweeting, he continued, “generates a lot of sound and fury, but I don’t think there’s anything to chatter on the ground in Iowa about looking for someone to run a primary in 2020.”

Still, Kaufmann’s barbed broadside in June still stunned and troubled some longtime Iowa Republicans, and GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds later stressed that Sasse is in fact welcome in the state. The moment, however, underscored the degree to which many Republicans remain deeply protective of the president in the face of the criticism Trump is taking — never mind a primary challenge.

Sasse, for his part, has given zero indication that he’s planning to launch a primary challenge, though he dodged a pointed question about such a run on CNN last weekend. He is set to be in the state to speak at a Story County GOP dinner, and to drive Uber, after losing a bet following a Nebraska-Iowa football game, he said in the same CNN interview.

“Obviously there’s buzz out there” regarding Sasse’s ambitions, said Story County GOP Chairman Brett Barker. But, he added: “I haven’t heard anyone calling for a primary challenge in 2020 by any means. 2024 is coming before we know it anyway.”

“The main thing is, it’s a really short hop across the river, it’s good for him and his national profile to come out and do an event like this,” Barker continued.

Sasse’s office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. But Kaufmann’s lashing only drew more attention to the visit, which will test Republican activist tolerance for hearing from someone who is not shy about breaking with the president (though Sasse has highlighted areas of agreement with Trump, such as the idea of repealing Obamacare first and working out a replacement after).

“For every Iowa Republican that was cheering Jeff Kaufmann’s statements in Cedar Rapids two weeks ago, there’s another Republican who’s very quietly interested in what Ben Sasse has to say,” said a veteran Iowa Republican operative. “It’s not like it’s wrapped up in old Never Trump stuff from a year ago. It’s just that he’s talking differently than almost anyone in Washington is right now. For Iowa Republicans who want to see a party that is for things, and has a set of principles that are guiding its policies, that’s not something they’re hearing from a lot of other federal elected officials right now.”

That includes the president, this Republican said, but hastened to stress, “I wouldn’t read too much into, ‘there’s this groundswell for a primary fight.’”

Added Craig Robinson, the founder of the prominent conservative site TheIowaRepublican.com: “At the end of the day, if the question is, is there much of an appetite for a primary challenge of the president, I’d say no.”

The issue of whether Trump is truly vulnerable to a primary challenge won’t be answered until after the 2018 midterms, GOP strategists say. Even if Republicans lose the House, it’s not at all clear that activists would blame Trump—and if the GOP maintains its majorities, the idea of a credible primary challenge becomes even more distant.

But in the meantime, Trump’s disapproval ratings remain persistently high, major legislative achievements have yet to come through and his habit of engaging in Twitter tirades makes even many of his supporters uncomfortable. And with his own 2020 campaign already underway, some Republicans say it wouldn’t be so crazy for others with budding presidential ambitions to begin to quietly explore, just in case.

"I don't think there's any doubt that the environment seems pretty rich for people to at least put their toe in the water, and at least consider thinking about 2020 and a primary," Ohio-based veteran GOP strategist Nick Everhart said.

And even in staunchly pro-Trump states like Iowa, there are some Republicans who are frustrated with the president.

“The president was just elected, nobody’s saying, ‘hey, we have to find a primary,’ but there’s a growing dissatisfaction,” said Steve Grubbs, another top Iowa Republican strategist. He pointed to the stalled legislative agenda and Trump’s “Twitter battles.”

“The president has plenty of time to turn that around, but the people who are unsatisfied are Republicans who expect the president to be president. And thus far—there have been times when he’s been presidential, but too many times he’s not been presidential.”

But there’s little to suggest, on the ground or in the numbers, that there’s any serious GOP interest in a primary—from Sasse or anyone else, in Iowa or elsewhere—at this point. Nationally, Trump’s support among Republicans has remained firmly in the mid-to-high eighties.

“My reading of other polls is, he’s holding his base,” said J. Ann Selzer, an influential Iowa-based pollster who said focus groups she led in the Midwest earlier this year revealed much the same thing. “There’s a fair amount of tolerance for things that appear to be shaking things up. He’s got a pretty long leash there.”

Karen Fesler, an Iowa-based GOP activist who has worked closely with Christian conservative voters, noted that Trump drew a big crowd during his stop in the state last month, and that he has the vocal support of Reynolds and other members of Iowa’s Republican leadership.

“Unless the wheels just totally come off, I don’t see it happening,” she said, of a primary challenge running through Iowa. “But two years is a lifetime in politics.”

Katie Glueck: 202-383-6078, @katieglueck