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What Kind Of Republican Might Challenge Trump In 2020?

In this week’s politics chat, we sift through recent reports of Republicans gearing up to challenge President Trump in 2020. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): A bout of 2020 speculation flared up over the last few days after The New York Times reported that a bunch of Republican officials “have begun what amounts to a shadow campaign for 2020 — as if the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue weren’t involved.”

Of course, we need little excuse to talk about 2020, so our question for today: Will someone challenge President Trump for the GOP nomination in 2020?

Let’s talk first about why there’s all this discussion of someone challenging Trump, and then we can go through the potential challengers.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I like your use of “flared up,” as though it’s arthritis or something.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): There’s “Trump challenger” talk because Trump associates are under investigation and there’s fear of impeachment or loss of effectiveness. It’s pretty simple.

micah: OK, so all this talk is because Trump is weak? (In other words, this isn’t what normally happens?)

clare.malone: This is not what normally happens. We live in extraordinary times.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Yeah, Trump doesn’t seem like he controls his party (see: health care), his approval rating overall is south of 40 percent and he’s still the guy who won less than 50 percent of the 2016 Republican primary vote.

natesilver: Nobody actually answered Micah’s original question! Yes, someone will probably challenge Trump for the 2020 nomination, assuming he seeks the 2020 nomination. The question will be whether it’s a “serious” challenge.

micah: “Serious” was implied, Nate.

natesilver: Is John Kasich serious?

micah: Yes.

clare.malone: Well, he’s serious about it. It depends if other people will take him seriously.

natesilver: But he’s … probably not going to win going after Trump from the left.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Kasich was a terrible candidate in 2016. He won one state: Ohio.

clare.malone: Nate LOVED Kasich.

micah: He’d still be a serious challenger.

perry: In the sense of his strong resume (having served as a House member and governor) or in the sense that he could actually beat Trump?

micah: His resume, he’d command significant media attention, he’d win a meaningful share of votes, etc. I don’t think being likely to actually win is the bar for “seriousness.”

natesilver: Oooohhh … “significant media attention.” I’m sure Trump is quaking in his boots.

clare.malone: Kasich would be a serious challenger if he lined up “serious conservatives” still in the GOP conversation to support him.

natesilver: The fact that I loved Kasich is all you need to know about why he couldn’t win a GOP primary. (I don’t actually love Kasich, other than his eating habits.)

What would his plan be?

  1. Appear on “Morning Joe.”
  2. ???

harry: Let me ask a question: Was Pat Buchanan a serious candidate in 1992, when he challenged incumbent President George H.W. Bush for the GOP nomination?

perry: Good question, Harry.

micah: Yeah, Buchanan was serious. Maybe that’s our standard — the Buchanan bar.

perry: Buchanan was a sign of George H.W. Bush’s political weakness , but he had little chance of winning the nomination. (Buchanan did not win a single state in 1992.)

micah: OK, so let’s take Nate’s trolling seriously: Will Trump get a serious challenger in 2020? (However you want to define that.)

clare.malone: Yes, I think so.

micah: Put your money where your mouth is, Nate.

perry: This is totally dependent on what we learn about the various Russia controversies. Is that a cop-out?

micah: YES!

natesilver: If you consider Kasich “serious,” then Trump will get a “serious” challenge, more likely than not. Give that there’s a huge opportunity for Kasich or someone Kasich-like to grandstand, I can’t believe nobody would take that opportunity. “Serious” doesn’t necessarily mean someone can win, though.

clare.malone: People smell weakness. And there’s a faction of big GOP donors who are hungry to support a serious non-Trump candidate.

micah: +1

clare.malone: I.e., the Koch brothers — they were not into Trump. They could mount a real uprising if they so chose.

perry: I like the idea of a Koch-backed challenger. That would be serious. Kasich is not that challenger. I don’t think the Koch groups like him.

clare.malone: Who would the Kochs choose?

perry: Someone like Tom Cotton, the Arkansas senator who visited Iowa earlier this year and who you could imagine running for president down the line.

clare.malone: Yeah.

perry: If he were willing to run.

clare.malone: We need to think conservative.

micah: Ben Sasse?

clare.malone: No. I don’t think so.

micah: Too pure?

clare.malone: They would choose other people above him.

natesilver: Maybe they’d pick MIKE PENCE.


harry: Let’s think through this logically. In 2012, a much-more-popular-than-Trump Barack Obama was held to less than 60 percent of the vote in a number of Appalachian primaries. Trump could have some problems in New England (which includes New Hampshire), where his approval rating among Republicans and independents is lower than it is nationally. That could sway someone like a Kasich to run. That doesn’t mean he will, but I think it’s plausible.

For all this talk of a very conservative challenge, keep in mind that Trump’s approval rating with that group is sky-high. Well, it is for now, anyway.

natesilver: I’m not sure I’d say it’s “sky-high.” It’s trees-high, maybe, or tall-building-high.

But it’s no longer sky-high. The recent downtick in his approval rating includes some erosion among Republicans and conservatives.

The Kasich challenge would be motivated more by the desire to stand up for the traditional values of the Republican Party — which Trump violates in many ways — and/or to sell books.

perry: Bingo! Kasich sounds like a symbolic candidate, someone who can air all the grievances that D.C. and NYC Republicans have with Trump. But he doesn’t really sound like someone who would win.

micah: OK, so let me jump back to Perry’s question about whether this all comes down to Russia. How much do the chances of a serious Trump challenger in 2020 depend on the Russia investigation vs. his low approval rating? Like, we’re talking about two eventualities here, right? 1. Trump is removed from office and therefore doesn’t run in 2020, and 2. Trump is still in office and still on the ballot.

I think it’s more interesting to talk about Republicans challenging Trump in the second scenario, right?

In No. 1, of course someone else runs.

perry: Yeah, the second scenario is what we are really talking about. Obviously if Trump is removed from office, Pence runs and so do lot of other people. Maybe even Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio again.

micah: So, let’s talk about if Trump is still on the ballot: Who would run in that case and would they have a chance?

clare.malone: Trump enemies, and only if they were well-funded.

natesilver: I wanna talk about the other scenario too, though.

micah: WE WILL!

natesilver: You could have a Mike Lee type run.

clare.malone: Yeah.

micah: Kasich.


natesilver: Lee, Kasich and Trump, or something like that, yeah.

perry: Morning Joe-style candidates would run if Trump is on the ballot. Kasich, maybe Sasse, maybe Morning Joe himself! People who are essentially running to Trump’s left.

harry: We’re basically recreating the 2016 primary.

micah: Oh god, how great would it be if Joe Scarborough ran?

clare.malone: Any governors? A conservative governor would be interesting.

micah: Chris Christie?

clare.malone: Stop.

perry: If I’m a real conservative, like Lee or Cotton or Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, why annoy the base by running against Trump now when I can run later, when my party doesn’t already control the White House?

clare.malone: Abbott definitely has ambitions. Definitely very conservative.

I could see him doing it if Russia gets bad.

natesilver: I mentioned Lee earlier because I don’t think he has as much opportunity cost. He’s not a potential A-lister, I don’t think, in the way that Abbott might be, for example.

So he has less to lose by blowing this opportunity and more to gain by raising his profile.

perry: Pence is not exactly scary to other potential GOP presidential candidates, since he’s the heir apparent in a post-Trump GOP. Whenever Trump is no longer the GOP’s presumed presidential candidate, lots of people will be running and they will not be that worried if Pence is also running.

natesilver: BTW, there are also in-between cases where Trump starts off by running and then drops out at some point along the way, a la LBJ in 1968. So there’s some incentive to be in the field in case that happens.

micah: So, I guess, here’s my main question with the scenario where Trump is still on the ballot: Which is more likely to succeed, a challenge from the right (Trump isn’t governing as a conservative) or a challenge from the sorta-left (Trump is a loose cannon and is degrading American institutions).

clare.malone: The “Trump isn’t governing as a conservative” message could win over some of the, say, Iowa activist types who are important.

harry: A challenge from the left makes more sense given where Trump is strong in the polling. Show me a poll where his approval rating among very conservative Republicans is under 90 percent.

natesilver: You probably ought to show us a poll, Harry, to prove your point. In the polls I’ve seen, Trump’s approval among strong conservatives is high, but a lot of it has moved from “strong” to “somewhat” support.

There’s also a nontrivial chance that Trump tries to “pivot” in a more moderate direction before 2020.

harry: You can see on Ipsos that Trump’s approval rating among very conservative Republicans is at 90 percent or above pretty consistently.

natesilver: Lol, way to cherry-pick, Harry. 110 respondents!

harry: You know better than most, Mr. Silver, that you can add up the days and you get a larger sample size.

natesilver: But you know better than most that adding both “very conservative” and “Republican” to the list is sort of cheating. Not all Republicans ID as “very conservative” and not all “very conservatives” ID as Republican.

harry: Obviously. But what I’m saying is that his numbers are far weaker on the left than the right of the party.

perry: OK. Harry is saying something I had not really considered. Basically, re-run the Rubio/Jeb Bush campaign (a conservative candidate who’s not really populist and not as anti-immigration as Trump) but with a better candidate than either of those two. Now that Trump has had some time in office and has been ineffective as president, maybe voters are not as amenable to backing him. A Rubio/Bush type could aim to run as the candidate for college-educated Republicans and hope to get all of them to vote for him or her, along with all of the more moderate Republicans.

clare.malone: Like, the Rubio college-educated suburban types?

natesilver: Clare, I’m not convinced there are enough Rubio-type voters for a Rubio-type candidate to have an easy path to victory.

clare.malone: The pull of the party is to the right.

natesilver: Maybe that changes in eight years if the GOP thinks that Trump has been a disaster. I’m not sure it’s gonna change in four years.

micah: I don’t know. I’m tempted to say that only a conservative challenge against Trump can work, but Trump isn’t even a conservative and he won.

clare.malone: Well, I think you get someone who hammers home many of the same messages Trump that does, but who’s more … respected? Or who acts in a more conventional way.

micah: Yeah, maybe a Trump platform in more conventional packaging would work against Trump.

But the bottom line here seems to be that if Trump is on the ballot, we think someone would need to come at him from the right to have any chance?

natesilver: It’s easier to imagine someone (Lee?) catching fire in Iowa and winning the nomination than someone (Kasich?) catching fire in New Hampshire and doing so. (Although neither is very likely.)

clare.malone: What if Jeff Flake ran?

micah: To promote his book?

clare.malone: Hah. No, I’m kinda serious. He’s more in the mix than Kasich. Like, in the real world, not the Kasich-manufactured world.

perry: I see Flake as akin to Kasich and Sasse: essentially running from the left against Trump. Yes, I know Flake is conservative, but Flake almost sounds like a Democrat on immigration, He was part of the Senate “Gang of Eight” that tried to pass a bill creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

natesilver: I don’t think Flake has built up enough goodwill with Republicans. Same with Sasse. They haven’t been around long enough.

clare.malone: And yet everyone here is mentioning Sasse!

perry: So I think a Trump challenge, to actually defeat Trump, must come from the conservative part of the party, not the moderate end. What Micah said. But a moderate challenger (like Kasich) would still be annoying for Trump. And it wouldn’t be a good omen for Trump in terms of his chances of winning the general election

harry: Let me note a few things here:

  1. There’s a difference between where there’s a better chance of a “serious” challenger and someone who can ultimately win. The former to me is from the left. The latter is from the right.
  2. I’m not sure thinking about this as a left-right issue is necessarily helpful if we’re talking about who takes down Trump. If someone winds up doing that, they would be able to unite moderate well-educated voters with very conservative voters. I don’t know who that is. But the challenge may take place on an ideological plane that is different from the left-right spectrum. Who is that candidate?

micah: Next, let’s talk about a world in which Trump is not on the ballot.

Who runs in that world?

clare.malone: Everyone.

perry: This was my problem with the New York Times story over the weekend that launched this 2020 GOP speculation. I’m pretty sure Pence is running only if Trump is not running. That is not shocking and maybe should have been covered less breathlessly.

micah: Yeah, it doesn’t even seem disloyal.

natesilver: Yeah, I’m not sure if the Times story contained much news that would cause me to update my priors. It sounds like everyone, Pence especially, is behaving about like you might expect them to. A lot of the campaign-y stuff that Pence does is part of his job anyway.

clare.malone: Yeah, though let’s be real — his PAC, etc. goes above and beyond the call of first-term VP duty.

It’s a clever cover, and I think he should get points for that!

natesilver: Well, “behaving about like you might expect them to” is different for a Trump presidency than it would be for a normal presidency — and especially a Trump presidency where his approval rating is 37 percent and he has a tangible risk of impeachment.

Republicans are hedging their bets to some degree, and they’re rational to do so. I just don’t think there’s anything especially surreptitious going on.

perry: Otherwise, if Trump isn’t on the ballot, I would think that Cruz and Rubio might give it a look. Cotton has been to Iowa. Abbott is pushing a Trump-like agenda in Texas. He would be a logical fit. Doug Ducey, the governor of Arizona, is making the rounds.

micah: So here’s my thing: In a world where Trump is not on the ballot, that means something really politically damaging has happened; in that case, would Pence (Trump’s VP) really be the person Republicans turn to to save them?

clare.malone: If he kept his nose clean during the scandal(s), Pence might still have a chance. But I do think a scandal opens up the field a lot more.

harry: Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination in 1968 as LBJ’s vice president after LBJ declined to run — though that was under a different system.

natesilver: I’d short Pence under those conditions, even though he might be a pretty good GOP nominee (he appeals to lots of different factions of the party) under ordinary circumstances.

perry: Pence is the logical choice if Trump can’t run suddenly — if campaign-ending news emerges in January 2020 or December 2019, let’s say.

Otherwise, remember there was chatter about Pence running for president in 2016. He didn’t because he was not very popular in Indiana and would likely not have done well in the GOP primary.

micah: Wouldn’t Pence be answering questions like, “What did you know and when?” and “Were you involved in X or Y?” every day?

natesilver: Right. And also, I think things are going to be totally haywire — unlike anything we’ve ever seen — if Trump is removed from office.

micah: Go on, Nate.

Paint a picture.

natesilver: I mean, for Trump to be removed from office, it necessarily means that a lot of Republicans will have voted to remove him from office! Parts of the base are going to be absolutely furious about that.

I’m not sure it’s possible for Pence to play to that anger while simultaneously distancing himself from Trump and saying he had nothing to do with the scandal(s).

clare.malone: That’s why governors or UN Ambassador Nikki Haley might be good to look at.

micah: Haley is getting some good reviews at the United Nations.

clare.malone: Yelp? Google Plus?

perry: Haley is in New York (where the UN is headquartered) and she was not on the campaign, so not involved at all in the D.C./Russia stuff, which would make it easier for her to defend herself about her involvement with any Trump scandal or legal issues. Also, she is an Indian-American woman. Yes, she would be a very intriguing prospect.

harry: Pence has a favorable rating of 84 percent among Trump voters and a “very favorable” rating of 61 percent. Pence’s “very favorable” rating is actually slightly higher than Trump’s among Trump voters.

micah: Yeah, see, I think Haley is removed enough from Trump to be viable in a Trump-is-toast world. Not Pence.

harry: Haley has generally been seen as a rising star. She could say she was chosen by Trump, but she has plenty of record to say she isn’t too close to him.

clare.malone: But I think Pence could still pull through? As long as his spheres stay relatively separate from the president’s? I guess I don’t know. That was the Gerry Ford play, but of course, he was a new VP, appointed, etc.

micah: Right, Ford wasn’t a member of Nixon World, really. Though he did defend the president through most of Watergate.

natesilver: You might need someone with gravitas, who can also position himself or herself as an outside savior.

Someone like …

clare.malone: MITT ROMNEY???


clare.malone: Yessssss.


micah: OMG, I can see the headlines now: “ROMNEY RETURNS”

perry: I agree with the “outsider with gravitas” thing Nate said, which I think Haley fits well at this point. Plus she doesn’t have the stigma of having been an earlier loser, like Romney in 2012.

natesilver: Here’s the 2020 election map, Romney vs. Bernie Sanders:

micah: Oh god. Dear Sanders supporters, please direct your anger to @natesilver538 on Twitter.

perry: I see Romney as being in the Sasse/Kasich zone. The base may have lost trust in him because he comes off as moderate and bashed Trump too many times, which could cost him with the party faithful.

micah: Perry, don’t ruin our fun.

clare.malone: But he’s so handsome!!!!

micah: OK, what about this: Mitt Romney vs. Hillary Clinton in 2020.

perry: So boring!

micah: 2020: The Losers Bracket

clare.malone: Earth 2 scenario.


perry: I will have to quit journalism.

harry: Polls showed Sanders generally holding big leads over Romney, by the way.

micah: Who would be the most fun GOP challenger in 2020?

clare.malone: Lindsey Graham.

Just for the quotes.

natesilver: Fun in what sense?

harry: How about Lisa Murkowski?

natesilver: I don’t think she’d be fun.

Romney would be fun.

perry: Oh, I think Susan Collins or Murkowski would annoy Trump so much. The women who took down his Obamacare repeal. That would be interesting.

clare.malone: GARY JOHNSON.

micah: He’s not a Republican!


harry: The most fun, to my mind, would be Sarah Palin.

natesilver: Mark Sanford.

Palin is a good call.

Melania Trump?

clare.malone: Ehh.

micah: The correct answer is … Joe Scarborough.

clare.malone: I think Palin is so over.

perry: Isn’t Scarborough basically already running against Trump?

natesilver: I think Collins is more likely to become a Democrat than to challenge Trump.

micah: There’s a legit chance Scarborough runs in 2020. He left the GOP, but he can always return — or run as an independent. Let’s say a 23 percent chance.

clare.malone: The Rock. We haven’t even talked about celebs stepping in.

micah: There aren’t any Republican celebrities, Clare.

clare.malone: Uh, Kid Rock much?

harry: Scott Baio.

micah: KID ROCK!

Clare wins.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.