The Democratic National Committee is already preparing for the 2020 election by conducting full-scale opposition research on those Republicans it believes could challenge President Donald Trump for reelection — or are likely to run if he does not.
The effort began in late spring and is currently focused on Vice President Mike Pence, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, among others.
“With Trump’s tumultuous presidency in complete chaos, we are prepared for all scenarios,” said DNC research director Lauren Dillon, confirming the campaign to Politico.
When it comes to well-known Republicans like Pence and Kasich, the DNC’s team of more than two dozen researchers are simply updating the existing research books they deployed in 2016. However, the DNC’s operatives must go through more work to research the other possible candidates — from compiling voting and governing records to financial files, searching for conflicts of interest, and even saving clips on their relationships with Trump.
It’s quite unusual for an opposition party to be scrutinizing potential intra-party reelection rivals to an incumbent president this early in his term. But, then again, this is the Trump presidency, and so far, there has been nothing normal about it.
In recent months, Democratic operatives have been requesting Freedom of Information Act-style records in multiple states and dispatched researchers to courthouses to collect legal records pertaining to the potential candidates. Among the destinations so far: Indiana, where Pence served as governor until January.
Republicans have pushed back on any notion that the 2020 election will not feature Trump as their nominee.
“As the vice president has said repeatedly, the only election in 2020 that he is focused on is the reelection of President Trump and Vice President Pence,” Pence press secretary Marc Lotter told Politico in response to a question about the DNC effort.
Trump has a team working on his 2020 reelection bid already, and presidential primary challenges are a once-in-a-generation event. The last one was in 1992 when Pat Buchanan failed in his attempt to oust President George H.W. Bush.
However, Trump’s low approval ratings and increasingly frequent opposition from GOP leaders have the sharks smelling blood in election waters.
Republican Trump critics like Kasich and Sasse have said that they don’t plan to run against Trump in 2020, but they’re also not ruling it out.
“I think the Democrats would be better served coming up with a better economic policy rather than planning to rely on Trump’s unpopularity,” said Kasich’s political adviser John Weaver.
“How Democrats waste their money is up to them, but this is pretty funny,” added Sasse spokesman James Wegmann.
Operatives on both sides of the aisle preparing for 2020 have also started speculating about the intentions of Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Marco Rubio of Florida, as well as former Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
“Needless to say, there is no historical precedent for this kind of challenge to a sitting president this early in his term. I do think it’s important to begin to have these discussions, if for no other reason than to make it clear that there remain Republicans unstained by Trump’s presidency,” said Charlie Sykes, a veteran influential conservative radio host based in Wisconsin.
In cases in which a president receives a primary challenge, the commander in chief may win his party’s nomination, but the move weakens him so much that he loses reelection.
To get to the point where another candidate is even considered, “the circumstances that would compel or permit such a change would have to be so remarkable, so sweeping, so unprecedented that any oppo research on a particular candidate would be rendered moot by the very circumstances that occasioned the change,” said Tom Rath, a longtime Republican strategist in New Hampshire and former state attorney general who advised Kasich in 2016. “I would think, if I were a Dem, I would really want to run against Trump in ’20 rather than anyone else.”
Democrats are expected to have a messy primary with dozens of candidates of their own, and Republicans are amassing their own research in advance of that contest. The GOP opposition research firm, America Rising, has publicly launched efforts against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, much like they did against Hillary Clinton before the 2016 election cycle.
The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, has roughly 20 staff members divided between its war room and research office tracking public statements by — and issuing public record requests on — a range of Democrats, aiming to identify the potential candidates’ top vulnerabilities.
Democrats did little research on Trump when he announced he was running, unlike the six years’ worth of planning they had done for Romney by the time he launched his 2012 campaign. And it looks like they’ve learned their lesson.
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