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Trumpocalypse Now? Ranking the Republicans Who Could Replace Trump on the 2020 Ticket

A look at 16 Republicans who might pursue the presidency if Trump is forced from office

Empty Podium Trump

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There was, hard as it is to remember, a time before Donald Trump dominated American politics. There will be a time after Trump as well — and if Democrats get their way, that time could come sooner than the 2020 election.

As Trump’s Ukraine scandal continues to spiral outward, Democrats are racing forward with their impeachment inquiry. And as public polling in support of his impeachment and removal creeps above 50 percent, Trump’s hold on power is no longer beyond doubt. In the most recent Democratic debate, Elizabeth Warren made light of the president’s precarious position by vowing to “outwork, out-organize, and outlast anyone, and that includes Trump, Mike Pence, or whoever the Republicans get stuck with.”

Let’s pause here: Absent a massive shift in sentiment among Senate Republicans, the Democrats’ impeachment push doesn’t have the votes it would take to remove Trump from the White House. Even if the House voted to impeach the president, it would require a two-thirds vote of the Senate to convict him. That means 20 Republicans would have to join the entire Democratic caucus to give Trump the boot. We’re nowhere near that right now, and — given everything Trump has done already and how popular he is among Republican voters — it’s hard to imagine what he could do to get 20 Republicans to decide that ousting Trump is worth facing the wrath of the GOP base.

The universe, however, is a chaotic and unpredictable place — and DJT has only made it more so. Back in 2015, when Trump took American politics on an escalator ride down to the overtly racist gutter, almost no one thought that he would be the next president. And so it’s possible that Trump’s presidency could end how it started: in a series of shocking twists that almost nobody saw coming.

Should that exit come before the 2020 presidential race, it would set off a stampede of ambitious Republicans hoping to take Trump’s place. The potential standard-bearers include lickspittle Trump loyalists, never-Trumpers already vying for the nomination, and establishment GOP politicians who’ve attempted to ride out the Trump storm without getting forever scarred by their association with the president.

Below, we rank the potential contenders for the 2020 GOP nomination in the absence of Trump. (An asterisk marks declared 2020 candidates.)

1) Mike Pence

Faction: Trump Loyalist

It’s hard to judge Pence’s own precariousness. The vice president has done a remarkable job of participating in the administration’s awfulness while projecting himself as out of the loop. In the current Ukraine scandal, Pence appears to have carried water for Trump but done so in coded language, demanding that the new leader of Ukraine investigate “corruption,” but perhaps stopping short of demanding an investigation of the Bidens. But any scandal big enough to topple Trump is likely to permanently tarnish Pence, if not dislodge him from office as well. Apart from his connection to scandal, Pence holds sway with the religious conservatives in the party. And he recently distanced himself from Trump’s chumminess with authoritarian regimes by calling on China to respect the “rights and liberties” of Hong Kong and its protesters. But Pence seems to lack the charisma to guarantee himself a place at the top of any ticket — even if he emerges from Trump’s exit as the incumbent.

2) Nikki Haley

Faction: Collaborationist Critic

Haley achieved the nearly impossible in the age of Trump, serving in the 45th president’s administration while burnishing her political star. The former governor of South Carolina acted as Trump’s first U.N. ambassador, leaving at the end of 2018, and she succeeded in bringing ballast to the administration — including standing up to Russia over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Now on a book tour, Haley is alternately critiquing and boosting Trump. She’s called out Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine as “not good practice”  but argued it was not impeachable. And she revealed that other top Trump deputies worked to foil the president’s worst impulses, but insisted she “didn’t want any part” of these efforts to “undermine” Trump. As an experienced politician with a presidential temperament, as well as a woman and a daughter of immigrants, Haley would offer the party a polar flip from Trump. The question is whether a politician who has taken pains to soar above the fray would be eager for a 2020 knife fight, or might instead bide her time until 2024.

3) Ted Cruz

Faction: “True” Conservative

Let’s face it, with a power vacuum like this, Cruz wouldn’t be able to help himself from taking another grab at the brass ring. The Texas senator is also fresh off a very expensive and competitive victory over Beto O’Rourke in 2018, which has kept the national organization from his 2016 presidential bid in operational shape. Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses that cycle, also has links to big GOP money, including the Mercer family, as well as a 96 percent rating from Heritage Action.

4) Mitt Romney

Faction: Collaborationist Critic

The once and future nominee? Romney has been in the Haley camp — seeking collaboration with the president but occasionally offering sharp critiques. (Romney quietly lofted other criticisms from an pseudonymous Twitter handle, Pierre Delecto.) But, Romney, the former private-equity titan, also represents the same GOP establishment that Trump’s 2016 nomination marked a repudiation of. Does Mitt have any appeal to today’s GOP base, let alone enough to propel himself to the nomination? 

5) Mike Pompeo

Faction: Trump Loyalist

Like Pence, Pompeo is crosswise to the Ukraine scandal. Rudy Giuliani has claimed his actions to seek interference in the 2020 election were blessed by Pompeo’s State Department. And Pompeo reacted with stunned, sweaty silence when asked about Trump’s alleged quid pro quo with Ukraine on a recent Sunday news show. If Pompeo were to weather the storm that triggered Trump’s departure, however, the Kansan has a prodigious résumé — member of Congress, CIA director, and secretary of state — as well as connections to Koch money.

6) Donald Trump Jr.

Faction: Trump Kid

Irrespective of the facts of his removal/departure, President Trump will have created a durable coalition of diehard supporters who will see his leaving office as the end result of a coup by Democrats and the Deep State. The man most likely to ride this wave of militant, always-Trump fervor is none other than the president’s son Don Jr., who is a fixture on the Trump campaign circuit and perhaps his dad’s most effective surrogate on the stump. He’s now on a book tour, rallying the base with a stop at the Reagan library. The trouble with Don Jr. — beyond his total lack of experience in government — is that the heir apparent adopted his father’s habit of hobnobbing and doing business with plenty of shady characters. To wit: Don Jr. appears to have been in the thick of his father’s connections to Ukraine. He was photographed having a “power breakfast” with Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, the Giuliani cronies who pushed to dig up dirt on the Bidens and who have been indicted for money laundering and channeling Russian cash into U.S. elections.

7) John Kasich

Faction: Never-Trumper

The former governor of Ohio was the last candidate standing in the race against Trump in 2016. Kasich openly weighed a rematch against Trump for 2020, but opted against it in May, saying he had “no path.” But Trump’s acting chief of staff admitted on camera to a quid pro quo — withholding military aid to Ukraine to pressure that country to participate in a politically motivated investigation — Kasich called on Trump to be impeached. If Trump were in fact removed from office, Kasich’s ambition to stand as a moral counterweight against Trumpism could draw him off the sidelines for 2020. Staunchly anti-abortion, Kasich has religious-right bona fides, but he angered small-government conservatives by leading expansion of Medicaid in Ohio under Obamacare. 

8) Liz Cheney

Faction: Neocon Revivalist

If there were a neoconservative uprising, Rep. Cheney (R-Wyo.), the elder daughter of the former VP, would be an obvious leader.

9) Jim Jordan

Faction: Trump Loyalist

Jordan lives to center himself in chaotic situations, most recently getting himself appointed to the House Intelligence committee to take on a staring role in impeachment-hearing questioning. While some politicians might pale at a mad scramble to replace a scandal-ridden ex-president, Jordan is likelier to see an opportunity to leverage the GOP’s conspiratorial war-cry against the Deep State into political power. The Ohio congressman has street cred with the GOP base for being a Hillary inquisitor and top Fox News defender of the president, but he could be weighed down by the molestation scandal at Ohio State University, where he was an assistant wrestling coach in a gym where athletes were allegedly preyed on by the team doctor.

10) Ivanka Trump

Faction: Trump Kid

Ivanka has the social graces to compete as a different kind of Trump. She also has White House experience, having served in the West Wing as a senior adviser to her father. But Ivanka brings little fire to the stump, and her forays on the international stage have been awkward at best.

11) John Bolton

Faction: Neocon Revivalist

The former national security adviser and U.N. ambassador got the hell out of Dodge just before the Ukraine shit hit the fan, and could yet be a key impeachment witness, although he wants the courts to give him permission to testify against his old boss first. Bolton has reportedly inked a $2 million book deal, to be out next year. Beloved by hawks, Bolton could run as the mustache of neoconservative restoration.

12) Kevin McCarthy

Faction: Trump Loyalist

The blow-dried California representative and House minority leader is another Trump loyalist who might seek to fill his shoes on the national stage. McCarthy, however, has his own baggage, which kept him from a speaker run in 2015. He also had to return a tainted donation from indicted Giuliani pal Parnas.

13) William Weld*

Faction: Never-Trumper

The former Massachusetts governor and Justice Department prosecutor has positioned himself as the antithesis of a president whose actions he sees as “calculated to destroy the interest of the United States.” Weld has been running against Trump for the 2020 nomination since April, but has only polled in the low single digits. The latest survey has him trailing Trump by 86 points.

14) Justin Amash

Faction: “True” Conservative

The Michigan congressman grew so fed up with the GOP that he left the party entirely — but not before Amash publicly called for Trump’s impeachment on the basis of the Mueller report’s voluminous evidence of this president’s obstruction of justice. Would a principled libertarian like Amash rejoin the party to seek its nomination — or run for president in 2020 as an independent? Amash hasn’t ruled it out.

15) Mark Sanford

Faction: “True” Conservative

Sanford’s personal peccadilloes — carrying on an affair with an Argentine woman while married and presiding as governor of South Carolina — now seem tame in comparison with Trump’s admitted genital-grabbing and his paying hush money to a porn star with whom he allegedly had an affair. Sanford still stands as an avatar of the stalwart economic conservatism Trump has abandoned in ballooning the debt by nearly $1 trillion in the last fiscal year. Sanford ended a short-lived 2020 presidential campaign in November, lamenting that there was “no appetite on the right for a nuanced conversation on the fiscal deficit.”

16) Joe Walsh*

Faction: Trumpy Non-Trump

Walsh is running for president against Trump, while acknowledging that his past inflammatory language as a member of the House of Representatives — Walsh promoted birtherism and several of his tweets have been read as calls to violence — helped pave the way for Trump’s rise. What possible Republican constituency is there for a guy who shares Trump’s bigotry but backs Nancy Pelosi’s assessment of Trump’s captivation by Vladimir Putin? The polls have an answer: damn near none.

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