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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

How to think about Joe Walsh's challenge

Joe Walsh (photo by Mark Taylor)

Former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh is officially challenging Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2020. How seriously should we take this challenge?

Let's just say at the outset that Trump is still the overwhelming favorite to be the Republican presidential nominee next year. He is very popular among those who will be voting in the Republican primaries and caucuses, as well as among activists and donors in the party.

That being said, it is unusual for an incumbent president to face a serious primary challenger. As a former House member and a prominent conservative talk radio host, Walsh counts as serious. So does former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, who has also challenged Trump from within the party. So does former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who is at least thinking about it.

The only modern incumbent presidents to face these kinds of challenges are Gerald Ford (who fought back an insurgency from Ronald Reagan in 1976), Jimmy Carter (who was confronted by Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1980), and George H.W. Bush (who faced prominent conservative Pat Buchanan in 1992). All still managed to win their party's nomination, but all were defeated in the fall campaign. (One might also include Lyndon Johnson, who, unpopular and facing some insurgent Democratic candidacies, chose to retire rather than run.)

What's important to remember, though, is that those primary challenges didn't cost Ford, Carter, and Bush the fall election. Rather, those incumbents drew challengers because they looked vulnerable for the fall election.* Similarly, while incumbents tend to win reelection, Trump looks vulnerable. He's been underperforming in polling his entire term despite good economic news, and now with the country in the middle of a trade war of Trump's own creation and possibly veering into a recession, the GOP's hold on the presidency looks tenuous. A different nominee, the thinking goes, could help the party avoid catastrophe.

If the GOP wants to dump Trump, it has a credible vessel for doing so.

Could Walsh be the sort of candidate to actually deprive Trump of his party's nomination? His message of Republican embarrassment is certainly a compelling one: "We're tired of a president waking up every morning and tweeting ugly insults at ordinary Americans. We're tired of a president who sides with Putin against our own intelligence community. We're tired of a president who thinks he's above the law. We're tired of a president who's tweeting this country into a recession."

Walsh has won elections before, knows how to mount a campaign, and is extremely media savvy. He is also, on the other hand, quite complicit in Trump's election -- he was an outspoken booster of the President -- and could easily be labeled a flip-flopper or one of Trump's many embittered former friends.

But all this is besides the point. Walsh's qualities (or Weld's, or Sanford's) as a candidate only matter to a small extent. He passes the minimal threshold of being a high quality candidate. The rest is up to activists, donors, and leaders within the Republican Party. If they want to dump Trump -- either because they're tired of his antics or are convinced he can't win reelection -- they have a credible vessel for doing so.

But if they're still enthusiastic about Trump going into next year's primaries and caucuses, Walsh's skills and resources just won't matter very much. He may have a decent showing in a contest or two (New Hampshire, with its open primary laws and media-intensive environment, can be a good place for an insurgent to demonstrate some strength), but he likely won't slow down Trump's march toward a majority of convention delegates by much.

The fact that Walsh, Weld, and Sanford are doing this at all is the tell. They see weakness in the incumbent, and they're willing to devote substantial time, money, and effort to exploiting it.

*I should note here that there is evidence that primary challengers negatively affect incumbents' fall reelection margins. Thanks to Jeffrey Lazarus for the suggestion.

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