Trump primary challengers would face big money problem

The president has already raised nearly $125 million this cycle and had $56.7 million cash on hand at the end of June.

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SOURCECenter for Responsive Politics

Conservative radio host and former Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) is the latest in a long line of Republicans to reportedly consider a primary challenge to President Donald Trump in 2020.

But if the former Illinois congressman decides to launch his own presidential campaign, he is likely to encounter the same challenge that other would-be Republican primary contestants face: The groups that once supported him now overwhelmingly back Trump.

The president has already raised nearly $125 million this cycle and had $56.7 million cash on hand at the end of June.

Walsh rode into Washington as part of the Tea Party class of 2010, edging out incumbent Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) by just 290 votes despite being outraised by more than $1.6 million. He only lasted one term, however, losing to now-Sen. Tammy Duckworth by 9 points in 2012.

During his brief tenure, leadership PACs were Walsh’s top contributor, giving his campaign nearly $180,000. Leadership PACs are typically affiliated with establishment backing. The two that gave Walsh the most belonged to once-influential Reps. John Boehner and Eric Cantor, and he received a few thousand dollars from each of Reps. Jim Jordan and Paul Gosar, who are now two of the president’s close allies in Congress.

But there is little chance that Walsh would be able to whip up the same support from congressional Republicans for a 2020 presidential run.

Former Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who lost his primary race in 2018 after Trump tweeted support for his opponent, has also publicly contemplated running for president. The former governor had served in Congress since 2013, and for a stint between 1995 and 2001.

Sanford’s loss in 2018 came despite outraising his challenger, Katie Arrington, by more than four-to-one in the leadup to the primary. The former congressman has staked a potential presidential campaign on prioritizing fiscal responsibility.

To fund a presidential run, Sanford would likely need to draw on funding from never-Trump Republicans who share his concerns, but it is not clear who would be willing to pay up. During the 2018 primary, Sanford received contributions from leadership PACs affiliated with Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), but both representatives have largely aligned themselves with Trump throughout his presidency.

Former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who declined to support Trump in 2016 and retired from Congress after the 2018 election, has also been floated as a potential challenger to the president in 2020, though he said in January he is not planning to run. During his 2012 Senate bid, Flake raised the mostfrom ideological Republican or conservative individuals and PACs, followed by retirees.

Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich is the only potential primary challenger who has run against Trump before. Kasich raised $18.9 million during his 2016 presidential bid and was the last candidate to drop out of the massive Republican field that year.

Kasich for America, the PAC that came out of the Ohio governor’s 2016 run, and New Day for America, a super PAC that supported him, have continued raising money. So far this year, they raised a combined more than $260,000 from individuals hoping Kasich will consider another presidential run.

The former governor’s remaining political allies might be able to help him get a campaign off the ground. However, Kasich has said he sees “no path” to the White House.

Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) is another potential presidential candidate, though the former member of the House Freedom Caucus is unlikely to seek the Republican nomination after leaving the party in May.

It is not clear where Amash would draw funds from for a presidential run. During the 2018 cycle, he received $29,420 through the House Freedom Fund, Meadows’ leadership PAC. After Amash called for Trump’s impeachment, however, Meadows and Trump reportedly discussed the possibility of primarying the Michigan congressman.

Each potential challenger to Trump would face a Republican establishment increasingly loyal to the president. The Freedom Caucus, once billed as anti-establishment, is now one of the president’s close allies. The Republican National Committee passed a resolution earlier this year giving the president its undivided support, and Trump has bolstered the RNC’s fundraising through two joint fundraising committees.

The shift can be seen with outside spending, too. The Club for Growth, a prominent conservative group focused on small government, actively campaigned against Trump in 2016, with its various affiliates spending nearly $10 million to oppose him in the primaries and declining to endorse him during the general election.

In past cycles, Club for Growth has favored several of the candidates pondering challenges to Trump. Its affiliated PACs spent spent more than $700,000 on independent expenditures supporting Flake when he first ran for Senate in 2012 and doled out $81,702 to support Amash during the following cycle. Amash also received more money through its conduit than any other source during his career.

But the group has indicated in recent months that it will back Trump in 2020. While it has not carried out any independent expenditures on the president’s behalf so far, its leadership reportedly coordinated with America First Action — Trump’s “approved” super PAC — before launching a series of attack ads against Democratic primary candidates.

Another warning sign for any Republicans thinking of primarying Trump might be the campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, the president’s highest profile challenger so far. The 2016 vice presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party raised less than $700,000 for his presidential campaign through the end of June.

Weld has campaigned only in New Hampshire, hoping that an upset there might force the Republican establishment to rethink its support for the incumbent president. But there is little indication so far that his strategy is working — a CNN/University of New Hampshire poll of likely Republican primary voters in the Granite State in July found Trump leading Weld by 79 points.

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