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Trump's Allies Move To Change Or Eliminate Primaries To Head Off Challengers


We begin this hour with a couple of names you could be forgiven for not knowing, Joe Walsh and Bill Weld. They are the former congressman and former Massachusetts governor who are challenging President Trump in the Republican primaries.


They're long shots, and their odds could be getting worse. That's because a handful of state Republican Party committees are moving to change their primaries or eliminate them altogether. It's a move that would favor the incumbent President Trump. NPR's Tamara Keith has more.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: This is what the Trump campaign would like to avoid.


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PAT BUCHANAN: Friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are.

KEITH: Pat Buchanan, who challenged George H.W. Bush in the Republican primary in 1992 with a prominent speaking role at the party's convention. Bush lost that November. Since then, presidents of both parties have successfully avoided a similar fate. President Trump's campaign has worked to leave little daylight for primary challengers, and Trump himself boasts about how much Republicans love him.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I've had tremendous Republican support. I have a 90% - 94% approval rating as of this morning in the Republican Party. That's an all-time record.

KEITH: It's not clear where Trump got that figure from, but the latest Gallup numbers have him at 88% approval among Republicans. That, incidentally, is one point lower than George H.W. Bush's approval was among Republicans at the same point in his presidency. Still, by just about every measure, the Republican Party is the party of Trump, and Bill Weld knows that.


BILL WELD: The Trump Organization in every one of the 50 states is the state Republican Party now.

KEITH: Weld is the former Republican governor of Massachusetts who's running against President Trump in the primary. In an interview with Morning Edition, he insisted he is trying to be president and he's trying to get there by winning the New Hampshire primary. But given that those remain long shots, there is a secondary goal.


WELD: Every time a president has had an opponent within his own party and they're all his, that president has gone on to lose.

STUART STEVENS: It's an underdog challenge, but the best ones are.

KEITH: Stuart Stevens is running a superPAC backing Bill Weld. His theory of the case is that if Trump stops looking like a winner, he'll have a problem.

STEVENS: Trump says he gets 95% of Republican Party support of him. He tweeted that the other day. Things are maybe at 10%. He's doing twice as good as he thought he would. He's setting the bar. Let's see how he does.

KEITH: Former one-term Tea Party Republican Congressman Joe Walsh supported Trump in 2016 and promoted birtherism before that, but now he says he was wrong, and he's challenging Trump in the 2020 Republican primary.

JOE WALSH: Am I a flawed candidate? Hell yes, but I'm - I know I've got the message that this president's unfit that needs to be heard.

KEITH: Former South Carolina governor and Congressman Mark Sanford is also considering a run. This weekend, South Carolina Republicans are deciding whether to ditch the 2020 primary altogether, though the chairman says in a statement there is plenty of precedent for this when there's an incumbent president. The exception - 1992. Nevada, Arizona and Kansas are also considering downsizing or eliminating their caucuses and primaries.

BILL KRISTOL: They're more worried than they let on.

KEITH: Bill Kristol is a Never-Trump Republican trying to encourage primary challengers. Kristol says challengers may not be able to deny Trump the nomination, but they could weaken him headed into the general election. He calls the state party moves anti-democratic.

KRISTOL: If you are confident, if you're Donald Trump, if these are just minor irritants, you know what? You beat them all. You crush them all in the primaries, and everyone says, wow. Look how strong Donald Trump is. If you're shutting down primaries, you're a little nervous about how the dynamic of these primary challenges could go.

KEITH: The Trump campaign did not respond to numerous requests for comment but has tried to downplay and distance itself from the state party moves, and a political scientist who follows nominating processes says the changes so far aren't outside of the norm when there is a president seeking re-election.

Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.