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Byron York: GOP challengers hope to weaken Trump for Democrats

By Byron York

Mark Sanford, the former representative and governor of South Carolina, has now joined former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld in challenging President Trump for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination.

Of course they have no chance. But the hope of some Democrats and NeverTrumpers is that a primary challenge will weaken the president enough that he will lose to his Democratic opponent in the general election.

Trump adversaries often note that no president who has faced a significant primary challenge in the last 50 years has gone on to win re-election.

They point to President George H.W. Bush, who lost in 1992 after a primary challenge by Pat Buchanan; to Jimmy Carter, who lost in 1980 after a primary challenge by Ted Kennedy; to Gerald Ford, who lost in 1976 after a primary challenge by Ronald Reagan; and to Lyndon Johnson, who withdrew in 1968 after a primary challenge by Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy.

How can Donald Trump have a chance to win in 2020, now that he is facing challengers of his own? The answer is that there are primary challenges and then there are primary challenges.

To say the least, there is a significant stature gap between Sanford-Walsh-Weld and the challengers of the past. Robert Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Ted Kennedy were major political figures at the height of their careers when they decided to take on sitting presidents. Buchanan was a well-known White House aide, commentator, television personality and all-around legend among conservatives.

Sanford, Walsh and Weld are all former officeholders whose best years in politics are behind them.

“Let me ask you something,” Buchanan told me in a recent conversation. “If Trump were not running in 2020, how would Joe Walsh and Bill Weld and Mark Sanford do in the New Hampshire primary? They would do nothing.”

Buchanan stunned Bush in New Hampshire in February 1992, taking 37% of the vote against the president’s winning total of 53%. When it was over, Buchanan totaled 22% of the vote overall.

Besides his obvious talent, Buchanan had other advantages over today’s challengers. Perhaps the biggest is that he was the only GOP opponent of the president.

But is there an analogous situation today with Trump, not among conservatives, with whom Trump is quite popular, but with moderate Republicans? Perhaps there is an opportunity for a hypothetical not-Trump candidate. But it seems unlikely that Weld, or Walsh, or Sanford would be that candidate.

The president has serious reasons to worry about losing in the general election. But a Trump defeat, should there be one, would be the result of Trump himself, and not his GOP opponents.

Still, some of Trump’s opponents hope a primary challenge might cripple Trump. Nothing is impossible, but the fact is, 2020 is not 1992, or 1980, or 1976. Trump might lose, but it won’t be at the hands of the retreads who are challenging him in the GOP primaries.

Byron York is the chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner.

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