Weirdly, Jeff Flake could be Donald Trump's worst nightmare

Two things can -- and likely are -- true about the possibility of President Donald Trump facing a serious primary in ...

Posted: Mar 19, 2018 5:41 PM
Updated: Mar 19, 2018 5:41 PM

Two things can -- and likely are -- true about the possibility of President Donald Trump facing a serious primary in 2020.

  1. Trump is a massive favorite to win that race.
  2. Such a race could damage him for the general election.

Why talk about 2020 today? Well, because Trump has already rolled out his 2020 slogan ("Keep America Great!"), has already hired a campaign manager for the contest and is in New Hampshire on Monday -- not an accident! -- to give a long awaited speech on the opioid crisis.

And because, Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake is sounding more and more like a candidate these days.

"I hope that somebody does challenge the President," Flake said on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday. "What I'm seeing is that there is a crying need out there for some Republicans to stand up and say, 'This is not normal, this is not right.'"

That sure sounds like someone who wants to run. Ditto Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who said on CNN earlier this month that "all options are on the table" when it comes to his political future.

Chances are that either Flake or Kasich -- or maybe Flake AND Kasich -- run against Trump in 2020.

That would be a big deal, but probably not for the reason you think.

Neither Flake nor Kasich would have anything more than a puncher's chance -- at best -- against Trump unless something drastic happens (think Mueller investigation) between now and 2019.

Whether you like it or not, Trump's hostile takeover of the Republican Party during the 2016 primary fight is now virtually complete. His Twitter rants against respected individuals like Robert Mueller go largely unremarked upon by congressional Republicans. A tax plan that would add more than $1 trillion to the deficit? Congressional Republicans barely batted an eye! Trump's suspicion of trade deals? A-OK!

If you need to know how total the Trump takeover has been, look only as far as Flake. Flake was elected to the House and Senate from Arizona as a solidly conservative Republican and a deficit hawk.

But, during the course of the 2016 campaign, he became one of the leading voices of the anti-Trump movement within the GOP. Trump, to hear Flake tell it, was a total abandonment of Republican core principles. Flake believed so deeply in this idea that he wrote a book about it!

And, not surprisingly, he earned Trump's ire.

Tweeted Trump: "Sen. Jeff Flake(y), who is unelectable in the Great State of Arizona (quit race, anemic polls) was caught (purposely) on 'mike' saying bad things about your favorite President. He'll be a NO on tax cuts because his political career anyway is 'toast.'"

Flake actually voted for the tax cuts. But Trump was right that his career was toast. Flake's retirement announcement last fall came amid polling that showed he couldn't win a Republican primary -- due in large part to his critique on Trump.

Now. The Arizona Republican Party isn't the GOP electorate nationally. It has long been one of the most conservative in the country and was an early adopter of Trump's populist/nationalist messaging.

But, still.

The point here is that while there are clearly pockets of discontent within the Republican Party toward Trump -- Flake was warmly received in New Hampshire on Friday -- it's hard to see a broad-scale mutiny against the incumbent short of a bombshell finding about Trump in the Mueller investigation. (Possible but not probable.) If Republican leaders haven't walked away from Trump in any great numbers to date, why would they start doing so in 2019? (The answer, of course, is that they won't because GOP voters remain largely behind Trump.)

And now for the giant caveat. Which is that while neither Flake nor Kasich -- nor anyone else mentioned as a potential primary candidate in 2020 -- has much of a chance against Trump, if one of them runs and gains even a marginal amount of traction, it could well hamstring the President's re-election chances.

History is a helpful guide here. The last two sitting presidents to face real primary fights were George H.W. Bush in 1992 (Pat Buchanan) and Jimmy Carter in 1980 (Ted Kennedy). Neither Kennedy nor Buchanan won -- and only Kennedy actually had a chance to win. But Bush and Carter both went on to lose their re-election fights. That is not a coincidence.

There are both logistical and symbolic problems causes by a semi-serious primary challenge.

Logistical first. The President needs to spend money, time and organizational prowess on a primary fight. If Flake or Kasich ran, Trump would have to divert some chunk of cash -- and manpower -- that he'd like to reserve for the general election fight. Ignoring either of those men in a state like, say, New Hampshire, could have real world consequences

Symbolically, presidents always -- or almost always -- do better in the eyes of the public when they stay above the political fray for as long as possible. A primary challenge forces a president back into being just another politician far sooner than they would like to.

Then there is the fact that discontent toward Trump -- among Republicans -- remains somewhat amorphous at the moment. As in: Sure, there are a group of "never Trumpers" out there. But, right now, they lack any sort of cohesion. A candidate -- like Kasich or Flake -- who steps up and says "I will stand for you" suddenly allows that discontent to focus and to potentially grow. Putting a face to a feeling, having someone to believe in, makes all the difference in the world.

That connection not only makes it more likely for an anti-Trump message/coalition to exist but also improves the chances of the discontent toward Trump lingering well into the general election. That's what happened with Carter and Bush; long after Kennedy and Buchanan had conceded defeat, the people who backed their candidacies remained unenthused about the prospect of voting for their party's incumbent president.

All of which means that if Jeff Flake thinks he can topple Trump in a primary, he is sorely mistaken. But if he thinks he can weaken Trump and potentially rob the incumbent of four more years in office, he's not talking crazy.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 259117

Reported Deaths: 5668
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto17331186
Hinds16373328
Harrison13731199
Rankin10854217
Jackson10557187
Lee8922141
Madison8335166
Jones6483112
Forrest6038120
Lauderdale5965187
Lowndes5425118
Lafayette503193
Lamar490865
Washington4826124
Bolivar4024109
Oktibbeha397681
Panola374680
Pontotoc369855
Monroe3591105
Warren3569100
Union348063
Marshall347769
Neshoba3413152
Pearl River3329103
Leflore3059107
Lincoln299386
Sunflower288271
Hancock282559
Tate274362
Alcorn267454
Itawamba265260
Pike264679
Scott250847
Prentiss248252
Yazoo247356
Tippah244450
Copiah243949
Coahoma242254
Simpson238368
Leake232966
Grenada220671
Covington215072
Marion215073
Adams207870
Wayne203232
Winston202667
George201939
Newton195044
Attala194659
Tishomingo191661
Chickasaw185744
Jasper174438
Holmes169168
Clay161335
Tallahatchie148235
Stone145921
Clarke141762
Calhoun137621
Smith122725
Yalobusha119134
Walthall112836
Noxubee111423
Greene111029
Montgomery110136
Carroll105321
Lawrence103217
Perry102831
Amite98826
Webster93924
Tunica87421
Claiborne86625
Jefferson Davis85827
Benton83323
Humphreys83324
Kemper78420
Quitman6969
Franklin67115
Choctaw61213
Wilkinson58825
Jefferson55419
Sharkey44017
Issaquena1596
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 429655

Reported Deaths: 6283
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson63040956
Mobile30794557
Madison27486201
Tuscaloosa20996268
Montgomery19352315
Shelby18833120
Baldwin16653184
Lee12749102
Morgan12389119
Etowah11861176
Calhoun11292201
Marshall10290113
Houston8746156
Limestone813276
Cullman8125106
Elmore7999104
DeKalb776599
Lauderdale768698
St. Clair7651121
Talladega6309108
Walker5954174
Jackson586341
Colbert539873
Blount537683
Autauga525755
Coffee450456
Dale402981
Franklin369948
Russell340711
Chilton338966
Covington332668
Escambia326043
Dallas308896
Chambers293170
Clarke287833
Tallapoosa2641107
Pike255230
Marion248953
Lawrence246649
Winston229535
Bibb218847
Geneva205446
Marengo202829
Pickens197531
Hale179542
Barbour176036
Fayette172928
Butler170858
Cherokee161930
Henry156523
Monroe149818
Randolph142135
Washington139126
Clay127645
Crenshaw121544
Cleburne119023
Lamar119021
Macon118637
Lowndes112036
Wilcox105121
Bullock101128
Perry99019
Conecuh95720
Sumter89626
Greene76623
Coosa61015
Choctaw51624
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