Image Credit: Joe Walsh
Elected Presidents don’t lose Presidential primaries. Most Presidents (and especially ones popular with their party as Trump is now) breeze through their party’s nomination process almost completely unchallenged. But, like many of the unspoken rules that have governed American political behaviour for the last two centuries, that may be about to change.
Joe Walsh, now the Republican party’s third possible nominee for President, first became an elected official in 2010, when he rode the Tea Party wave to win Illinois’ 8th Congressional district. Like the President himself, he is no stranger to being a political outsider. However, unlike the President, he has decided to run on a platform that preaches bipartisanship, over Trump’s more divisive rhetoric. Walsh, having voted for Trump in 2016, has since said his decision was “misguided” and now wants to offer Republicans another choice for their nominee, labelling his opponent an “unfit con-man.” His website currently reads “We’re tired of the drama, we’re tired of the lies.”
Even so, the campaign to oust Donald Trump through the primary process is universally regarded to be a long shot. “Just what does Joe Walsh think he's doing?” asked Damon Linker, writing in The Week. The greatest success story from a primary challenge to a sitting President in recent years was Pat Buchanan against Bush Sr in 1992. Buchanan took advantage of a flagging economy, and a President unpopular with his base to win 23 per cent of the vote. That said, despite Trump’s unpopularity overseas and with American liberals, the current President frequently hits over 90 per cent approval in polls of Republican voters. His popularity has also been boosted by a successful economy and inconclusive results from the Muller report. Trump presents a tough challenge for a lesser-known contender. He isn’t particularly phased by his challenge from Walsh either. Trump’s campaign had a one-word response to the announcement earlier this week: “whatever.”
As a conservative talk show host, and former Tea Party favourite, Walsh is nonetheless well-placed to put forward a compelling case against Trumpism. He is also more likely to be more successful at drawing attention to himself than the second primary challenger, former Massachusetts Governor, Bill Weld. Walsh’s roots are also typical of the new Republican right. Whilst still in Congress, he was often accused of pushing a partisan agenda against Democratic colleagues that included criticism of President Obama. Also, he has long been a strong proponent of the second amendment. Jane Coaston, writing for Vox, neatly summarised Walsh’s dilemma: considering Walsh and Trump’s policy similarities “would it even be possible” to run a Trumpist platform without Trump?
It does seem that the best case for a Republican challenger is the need for a greater criticism of Trump from the right. Bill Krystol, the Republican neoconservate commentator, has made the point before that Trump’s policies, which are not typically fiscally conservative, do not do well with right-leaning Republicans. The debt ceiling is a particularly prescient example. Krystol reported that many of his focus groups were surprised when they heard that the national debt had increased more under Trump than Obama. The same focus groups also almost unanimously agreed that they were open to an alternative to Trump, even for just a more ideologically diverse primary.
Even if Joe Walsh fails to engage many voters (as he is statistically likely to do), his campaign could have other unintended consequences. Two weeks ago, Krystol rejected the idea that a strong campaign from Walsh could lead to a potential loss against the Democrats, but that is certainly a possibility. Republican strategist Sarah Longwell put it best, arguing that having no challengers, for her and other moderate Republicans, would be worse. A choice between Trump and Sanders would be the equivalent to asking someone if they wanted to be “poisoned, or shot.” “I think America deserves better.”