Ohio Governor John Kasich and President Donald Trump celebrated a fellow Republican's electoral victory by resuming their feud. Both of them backed Troy Balderson, who appears to have won a nail-biter last week in a special election for the U.S. House. Trump claimed, on Twitter naturally, that the race was close because Kasich is so unpopular. (Kasich has a net approval rating of 15 percent in Ohio, while Trump is at -1.) Kasich retaliated with a clip of Vladimir Putin laughing.
Will their rivalry move from Twitter to the presidential primary? Kasich has fans who would like to see him take on Trump (again) in 2020. But there are three facts working against Kasich's ability to make it a real race.
First, and most obvious: Trump has the support of 82 percent of Republicans. Yes, some of that support is soft, and yes, the numbers could drop. That would happen if Trump crossed conservatives on an issue millions of them care about, like guns or abortion. He has given no sign of being willing to take that risk. Significant economic deterioration could pry some soft supporters out of his coalition, too. Otherwise he is probably safe.
In an era of party polarization, partisans are less likely to tolerate internal challenges. The last time an incumbent president even got a black eye in a primary was 26 years ago, when Pat Buchanan made a decent showing in the New Hampshire primary against President George H. W. Bush. Backing a challenger runs the risk of weakening the incumbent and thus handing power to the other party. That was arguably the effect of Buchanan's run in 1992.
A vote for Kasich, Trump supporters would say, is a vote for Kamala Harris (or Elizabeth Warren, or whatever Democrat looks most formidable at that time). It's an argument that would hit home with a lot of Republicans.
That judgment might change if Republicans thought that Trump had no hope of winning re-election. Which brings us to a second issue: Trump's 2016 victories radically reduced the power of electability arguments against him. "Trump's Republican critics almost uniformly agree that they cannot attract a large audience for their case against the president until Republican elected officials and voters see evidence that his approach is endangering the party's electoral prospects," CNN's Ronald Brownstein wrote recently.
They're being too optimistic. Trump polled very badly through most of the general election against Hillary Clinton, and most Republican politicians were afraid of a bloodbath. It didn't happen. Even if Trump's reelection numbers look dismal in the fall of 2019, Republican voters are going to need a lot of convincing to drop him as a sure loser.
Losing the House this fall will not cause Republicans to make that reassessment. His supporters will make many excuses if that happens, and some of them will even be correct. The president's party usually loses seats in a midterm, they'll say, accurately. Because Republicans in swing districts are more likely to be critical of Trump, it's the critics who will disproportionately lose seats. Trump's supporters in the media will spin that to mean that sticking with him is the smart course. And a face-off between Trump and a Democratic House will tend to make party loyalty among Republicans and thus loyalty to Trump even stronger.
The third reason a Kasich run could fizzle out is that some Republicans who have reservations about Trump have reservations about him, too. The common denominator among Republicans who dislike Trump is revulsion against his character. On policy issues, Trump's critics diverge.
Kasich, who has been a strong supporter of Medicaid expansion and has urged people to "just take a chill pill" when discussing abortion, appeals to anti-Trump Republicans whose policy views are relatively moderate. But he alienates many of those who are more conservative the kind of voters who favored Senator Ted Cruz rather than Kasich over Trump in 2016.
Someone like Kasich would probably do better in a primary challenge to Trump than someone like Cruz, because anti-Trump Republicans these days tend to be college-educated suburbanites who are themselves relatively moderate. But Kasich could not count on all anti-Trump Republicans to back him.
A primary challenge to Trump in 2020 might still serve a purpose, even if Trump retains the support of most Republicans. But that purpose will be to register a protest to stand for a conservatism that is better than Trump not to elect a new president.