The in-plain-sight race to be the GOP’s Trump backup

THE IN-PLAIN-SIGHT RACE TO BE THE GOP’S TRUMP BACKUP. After a fast start, the Republican presidential race will be in South Carolina for the next 26 days. Former President Donald Trump, having won Iowa and New Hampshire, appears to have a commanding lead over South Carolina’s own Nikki Haley, although it’s important to note we don’t have any recent polls. Even the most generous conventional wisdom sees Haley leaving the race if, after having lost the first two contests, she can’t win her own state.

But there’s another race going on at the same time as the conventional campaign, one that Haley will still be part of no matter what happens in South Carolina. And that is the race to be the Republican backup candidate should Trump implode.

Yes, Trump has been absolutely dominant in the campaign so far. But his legal troubles, including 91 felony counts, are never far away. Just check out at his recent schedule of campaigning and attending trials. That will continue, and possibly accelerate, in the months to come.

Look at it this way: There are 91 cruise missiles, launched, in the air, and targeted at Trump right now. Some are wildly off-course, some are duds, and against all of them, Trump has significant defenses. But still — 91 cruise missiles. Does anyone think not a single one will hit the target? Trump’s adversaries, in the Biden Justice Department and elected Democratic prosecutors’ offices in New York and Georgia, are conducting a multiple-redundant lawfare offensive against him. They don’t have to depend on any single case. They can fail most of the time and still win once.

This is nothing new. Today’s situation is not all that different from the one described almost seven months ago, in a July 5, 2023, newsletter. At that time, Trump had already been in the lead for a long time. “Trump has a lead over the Republican field that is somewhere between that of a dominant candidate and an incumbent president,” I wrote. “His challengers are learning there is little they can do to change that. They’re just hoping that some external force, some deus ex machina, intervenes to shake up the race.”

That’s pretty much the case today, except that Trump has won the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Now, some observers wonder why Haley is staying in the race. One answer is the same as months ago: because things might change.

This kind of talk grates on Trump supporters. They believe, correctly, that Trump has been unfairly targeted a number of times since he entered presidential politics, beginning with the long Russia inquiry — a collusion investigation that couldn’t find collusion but was the basis for years of slander against Trump. Now, even the more moderate among them look at the New York indictment of Trump, launched by the elected Democratic district attorney of Manhattan, and see it as total BS. They think the same of the lawsuit in which the elected Democratic attorney general of New York, who ran for office vowing to bring down Trump, is trying to destroy his business empire. The racketeering indictment brought by the elected Democratic district attorney of Fulton County, Georgia? It’s a mess at the moment, mired in credible allegations of corruption against the district attorney and her top prosecutor.

The two federal cases against Trump, brought by the Biden administration’s chosen prosecutor, Jack Smith, are heftier. But the classified documents case is sprawling, complex, and slow. It seems unlikely to change the course of this election year. That leaves one more: In the end, the alliance of Democrats, lefty activists, Never Trumpers, media types, and others who want to knock Trump out of the race are putting most of their hopes on Smith’s case dealing with the 2020 election and Jan. 6. That’s the one — with just four out of the 91 felony counts against Trump — they hope can bring Trump down. But that case is troubled, too, facing likely Supreme Court review of Trump’s immunity claim, which Trump is likely to lose, plus Supreme Court review of what critics say is the improper use of the statute that forms the basis of one of the counts against him.

After talking with Trump supporters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, it’s clear that most of them don’t make a lot of distinctions among these cases. They don’t follow the details. They just think they’re all unfair and part of a corrupt campaign to destroy a candidate that Democrats can’t defeat at the ballot box in 2024.

Here is the danger for Trump’s GOP rivals: If any Republican candidate even hints that the prosecutions are legitimate or that Trump deserves them — in other words, agrees with Democrats and Never Trumpers and all the others who are pursuing the former president — that candidate would have big, big problems with the GOP base. “The Never Trumpers have negative clout with the grassroots,” noted Dave Carney, the veteran GOP strategist based in New Hampshire. “[The Never Trumpers’] selection is doomed.”

But there is one more complication. If legal troubles did somehow knock Trump out of the race, some Republican would have to be the party’s candidate. And whoever that is, he or she might have a good chance against the too-old and too-weak President Joe Biden. There is a big prize awaiting the candidate who can walk a fine line between opposing the Trump prosecutions and becoming the GOP standard-bearer if the prosecutions work.

Throughout the campaign, Haley has tried to walk that fine line. She has said she hasn’t followed the prosecutions closely and is not familiar with the details. She has changed the subject. And she has lumped all the cases together in the “chaos” she says would ensue if Trump were to win. “The truth is, rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him,” she tells audiences. “You know I’m right. Chaos follows him.”

That appeals to Democrats, some independents, and Republicans who are ready to move on from Trump — a coalition that wasn’t big enough for Haley to win in Iowa or New Hampshire. And what about those Republicans who believe Trump has been “wrongly” targeted? They instinctively rebel against the underlying assumption in Haley’s formulation — that the Democrats, Never Trumpers, et al., who are trying to knock Trump out of the race get to control who becomes the Republican nominee. They rebel against the idea that if anti-Trumpers just make enough noise about Trump, Republicans will say, “OK, I guess we should choose another candidate.”

An illustration of this conflict came recently when the National Review published an article on the $83.3 million award against Trump in the E. Jean Carroll lawsuit. (That’s another case that many Trump supporters see as unfairly brought against the former president.) “As much as you may believe Trump has been wronged here — and I think the damage award of over $83 million is ridiculously inflated — this is what it is going to be like for the next nine months, every day, if Republicans nominate Trump,” National Review’s Andrew McCarthy wrote.

To which Sean Davis, co-founder of the Federalist, responded on X: “The National Review argument is Republicans should only vote for candidates that Democrats promise not to lie about. Imagine living through the Kavanaugh rape hoax and thinking the psychopaths behind it deserve a say in who Republicans nominate for anything.”

Haley faced this issue Sunday in an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press. Pressed to comment on the Carroll lawsuit and a previous Carroll suit in which a jury found Trump liable for “sexual abuse,” Haley said, “I absolutely trust the jury. And I think that they made their decision based on the evidence.” Nevertheless, Haley said, “I just don’t think that should take [Trump] off the ballot. I think the American people will take him off the ballot.”

NBC’s Kristen Welker then asked Haley: “Are you staying in this race in case Donald Trump is convicted of a crime?” Haley said absolutely not. “I’ve never stayed in this race because of court cases,” she said. “You know, really, I don’t know what all the court cases are.”

Take Haley at her word that Trump’s legal situation will not be a factor in her decision to stay in or leave the race if she continues to lose primaries. (If she starts winning, then of course she stays in the race.) Haley has nevertheless become the hope of all the anti-Trump voters and activists in and around the Republican Party. They will want her to keep on in the hope that somehow Trump can be booted from the race.

It’s all a very complicated, difficult situation. Recently, I asked Curt Anderson, a longtime Republican strategist who is not involved in the presidential contest, for his thoughts on this dilemma. His answer was worth including at length:

I should state upfront that I think Trump is already the nominee, I don’t think the courts will stop him, and he has a better-than-even shot of winning the presidency. I believe people need to prepare for a Trump presidency.

But as for these scenarios, here are a few thoughts:

Ted Cruz did hang around quite a while in 2016, perhaps hoping against hope that Trump would stumble. His people were talking about various “convention strategies.” I would argue that was all to his detriment.

The Haley thing is interesting in several regards. As for the “Stay in the race as long as you can because Trump could be sentenced to isolation on an island in French Guiana at any moment” strategy —

1) Staying in a two-candidate race makes her the object of Trump’s continual wrath and therefore makes her less likely to be the choice of voters/convention goers if Trump were to be eliminated.

2) It’s not just that Republican voters “like” Trump. They also agree with him.

3) Haley did not necessarily choose to be embraced by all the Never Trumpers. But it has happened, and that will not benefit her. She is playing with fire in that regard.

Anderson continued:

It all depends on what she sees as her end game. If I were her friend, I would argue that she should lay down the sword and endorse Trump prior to getting clobbered in her home state and thus preserve the ability to serve in the Cabinet or to be chosen if something happens to Trump or maybe even to run again.

There are certainly a sizable number of Republicans who like her. But I think by staying in the race, she is currently in the process of shrinking that number. Another month of battling with Trump will ensure that she would not be selected as his replacement should something happen to him. It may be too late anyway — certainly the most ardent Trump supporters would say that.

At the end of all that, it’s time again to remind that this situation is entirely unprecedented. Nothing like this has happened before in American politics. Haley and Trump, too, are having to deal with the situation in real time. It will be unprecedented if Trump stays in the race, and it will be unprecedented if he leaves the race. No one knows exactly how either situation would work. The Republican Party and the nation are headed for unknown territory.

For a deeper dive into many of the topics covered in the Daily Memo, please listen to my podcast, The Byron York Show — available on Radio America and the Ricochet Audio Network and everywhere else podcasts can be found.

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