At Political Forum, Trump Challengers Mount Longshot Primary Campaigns

Oct 26, 2019
Originally published on October 26, 2019 5:35 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Under any circumstances, mounting a primary challenge to a sitting president from within your own party is no easy task. And President Trump, however weakened he may be by the ongoing impeachment inquiry, has a huge campaign fund and the power of incumbency. But a handful of Republicans are running against him, sounding alarms about the damage they say he is causing to the country and to their party. Today, three GOP challengers met for a forum in Nashville. NPR's Sarah McCammon was there, and she has this report.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: In the lobby of a Nashville hotel this morning, a Donald Trump impersonator ran into one of President Trump's Republican challengers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Imitating Donald Trump) At least my hairpiece looks better than yours. I've got to say that, right?

MCCAMMON: Former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld is among a handful of Republicans waging longshot primary campaigns against Trump. He was here in Nashville for Politicon, a convention for, obviously, hardcore political nerds.

BILL WELD: So there's the debate of the three of us, and you could crash. And you would dominate

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Imitating Donald Trump) Oh, I would love to debate you.

MCCAMMON: When Weld and two other GOP presidential hopefuls took the stage for a forum hosted by Politicon, there was no Trump impersonator but much discussion of the sitting president. And they did not sound like most Republican officeholders these days.

WELD: I think the only way the country is going to be able to breathe easy again in the foreseeable future is if the president is removed by the Senate.

JOE WALSH: Go through the process, and I believe you've got to go through the process. But he does need to be impeached. So if Donald Trump's not impeached, then nobody should be impeached.

MARK SANFORD: What I want - and I think what all three of us want and what I think a lot of Americans want - is him out of office.

MCCAMMON: That was Weld, followed by former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh and former South Carolina congressman and Governor Mark Sanford. Sanford worries about the politics of impeachment if the House impeaches Trump but the Republican-controlled Senate does not remove him. He's calling on Congress to censure Trump instead and let American voters decide next November whether he should stay in office.

SANFORD: At that point, you'd have a clear message from the House and Senate. You wouldn't have a conflicting report coming out of the Senate that would allow the president to say, see, I told you I did nothing wrong. The Senate didn't come up with a conviction here. I did nothing wrong.

MCCAMMON: Along with the criticism of Trump, there were also attacks on fellow Republicans for failing, the candidates said, to stand up to him.

WALSH: All of these congressional Republicans who despise Donald Trump and understand the threat he is like Mark, Bill and I do...

MCCAMMON: Walsh said too many Republicans are hiding out, as he put it, hoping things will just go back to normal after Trump leaves office.

WALSH: It's too bad. They've sold their soul to this president.

MCCAMMON: For Sanford, the reasons for Republicans to go into hiding are loud and clear.

SANFORD: The name of the game is staying in the game for a lot of folks in politics, and it's an exercise in self-preservation.

MCCAMMON: Sanford, who'd been critical of both President Trump's policies and tone while in Congress, would know. In 2018, Trump attacked Sanford on Twitter, alluding to Sanford's well-publicized extramarital affair while he was governor and throwing his weight behind Sanford's Republican challenger. She won the primary only to lose to a Democrat last November.

SANFORD: I sort of ran my mouth a bit against the president when I was in Congress, and there was a consequence to doing that in an electoral sense.

MCCAMMON: In recent days, Trump has again used Twitter to attack Republicans who speak out against him, tweeting this week that never Trump Republicans are, quote, "in certain ways worse and more dangerous for our country than the do-nothing Democrats. He added, watch out for them. They are human scum." But Trump may have little need to watch out. According to the Federal Election Commission, his campaign raised more than $40 million in the last quarter. That's compared to less than a million dollars for all three of his Republican challengers combined.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.