Why the Anti-Trump Republican Primary Has Yet to Emerge

Why the Anti-Trump Republican Primary Has Yet to Emerge

Just a few months ago, the Republican presidential primary looked like Donald J. A frank and vigorous debate about Trump’s leadership and limitations may ensue.

But any appetite for criticism of Mr Trump among Republicans has been virtually extinct in a short period of time. Voters rallied around him after his criminal indictment in March on charges related to hush money for a porn star, and potential rivals faltered, with some willing to take direct aim at the former president and front-runner for the nomination.

In a live town hall on CNN on Wednesday, where Mr. Trump showed cheers for every lie and insult under tough questioning by a moderator, there was no daylight between Mr. Trump and the Republican base. A bizarre attempt to interrupt the love-in by Chris Christie – a potential rival that prompted audience members to ask questionable questions such as “Why are you afraid of debate?” – Didn’t go anywhere.

In surveys and focus groups, a good portion of Republican voters say they would prefer a less polarizing, more electable candidate. But the near-inhibition against criticizing Mr. Trump has made it hard for rivals other than Mr. Christie and one or two others to stand at the bottom of the polls.

As the 2016 Republican primary looks to resume, almost none of Mr. Trump’s competitors have openly gone after him, despite their obvious weaknesses. Instead, they are hoping – like now – that he will somehow self-destruct, leaving his electorate to inherit them.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is weighing the 2024 campaign, refused to criticize Mr Trump after a jury found Mr Trump liable on Tuesday for sexual assault and defamation of author E. Jean Carroll. In an interview with NBC News, Mr Pence said it was “another story focused on my former running mate that I know is a big draw for members of the national media, but I don’t think it is for the American people.” Are focused.”

other 2024 candidates either defended Those undermining the decision include Mr Trump, such as entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, or former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. Ms Haley, who announced her candidacy in February, also defended Mr Trump this week for threatening to skip the Republican primary debates. “With the numbers he has now, why would he go on the debate stage and take a risk?” He said.

Only two 2024 hopefuls found the decision in the Carroll case disqualifying for future president: Mr. Christie and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson. Mr Hutchinson criticized Mr Trump’s “contempt for the rule of law”.

Several months ago, polling suggested Mr. Trump could be a potentially weak candidate, with only 25 to 35 percent support from Republican voters in high-quality surveys. The Republican National Committee promised an autopsy of the 2022 midterms that was expected to address Mr Trump’s role in the party’s surprise loss.

But today, the lanes in the Republican primary appear to be closing for a candidate who has openly criticized Mr. Trump.

Mr Hutchinson’s far-right campaign has failed to garner attention. Mr. Christie, the former New Jersey governor who has promised to decide this month whether he will run, has still not generated much interest. Even the ever-critical Mr. Pence, who mildly suggested that Mr. Trump would be “accountable” to history for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, is struggling for endorsements from the Republican base.

And the RNC autopsy of the midterms? Mr Trump was reportedly not mentioned in one draft.

David Kochel, a Republican strategist who advised Jeb Bush when he ran against Mr. Trump in 2016, said there was no opportunity for a candidate openly critical of Mr. Trump in the 2024 primary.

“Voters have seen Trump as the most attacked president of their lifetime, and they seem to have an allergic reaction to their own doing so,” Mr. Kochel said. “They’ve built up these incredible antibodies based on how the base believes they’ve been treated.”

A CBS News poll released this month found that only a handful, 7 percent, of likely Republican primary voters wanted a candidate who “criticizes Trump.”

The poll found that the three candidates voters are least open to considering are those who have criticized Mr. Trump to varying degrees: Mr. Christie, Mr. Hutchinson and Mr. Pence.

David Carney, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire, said he had expected the race to be more competitive than it has been now, but a turning point came with the impeachment of Mr Trump in New York in March.

“It fell into the presidential narrative of the past five years,” Mr. Carney said, referring to Mr. Trump’s portrayal of himself as a victim of a criminal justice system. Mr. Carney described what he called the “boomerang” effect on Republican primary elections. “They’re beating your man – there’s a rally around the flag.”

Mr Trump’s rivals could see a surge in support between now and the first primary contests next year, but for now he dominates all challengers. One polling average shows him with a 30-point lead over his nearest rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has not yet formally announced his run. All other candidates, declared and potential, are distant thoughts in the race for now.

The former president is insulated from criticism, strategists said, because of the deep and entrenched partisanship of the Republican base, and because many of those voters receive information only from right-wing sources that have downplayed the January 6 attack and Has obscured Mr. Trump’s 2020 loss.

“He barely has access to the truth,” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist. Ms Longwell, who hosts a podcast about Republican voters called “The Focus Group”, said a large proportion of primary voters wanted to move on from Mr Trump.

But according to polling, a majority of Republican voters do not believe Mr. Trump was actually defeated in 2020. Longwell said.

Mr. Christie, Mr. Trump’s most sharply critical 2024 hopeful, recently attacked the former president, calling him “a child” for denying the 2020 election results and cowardly for suggesting that he skip the Republican debates. Can

But when Mr. Christie tested the electoral waters during visits to New Hampshire over the past two months, including at the same college where Mr. Trump’s town hall took place on Wednesday, his crowds turned to independents and even that she leaned toward the Democrats, including those who knew her. as a House Conservative on ABC News.

One element that could factor into Mr. Christie’s calculations: The New Hampshire primary next year could favor anti-Trump Republicans because of an influx of independent voters. Because Democrats chose South Carolina as their first nominating state — and because President Biden cannot appear on the New Hampshire ballot or campaign in the state — 100,000 independents are expected to cast ballots in the Republican race, where they will tally the results. can tilt.

“Independents are open to voting for a Republican candidate,” said Matt Mowers, who served as Mr. Christie’s New Hampshire state director in 2016, “but they are not open to voting for a rabid Republican.” Are.”


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