AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The 2020 campaign is in full swing - that is if you're talking about the Democrats. On the Republican side, not so much. President Trump faces no strong primary challenger so far. The Republican Party appears fully behind the president despite grumblings among some in the party establishment. To help explain what is going on, we're joined now by NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there, Ailsa.
CHANG: OK. Let's just start with, who is challenging Trump? And then I want you to tell me who noticeably is not.
MONTANARO: Well, there are a couple candidates who've said that they're at least thinking about it. They're at least considering taking on the president. One is a former congressman - Tea Party Congressman Joe Walsh from Illinois.
Also, Bill Weld, the former Republican governor from Massachusetts, has said that he's strongly considering it. He's been on the trail in some of the early states. But they just don't have the kind of fundraising and grassroots support that party strategists think would be a real challenge to the president.
MONTANARO: On the other hand, they look at people like Larry Hogan, the popular Maryland governor who's a moderate - two-time governor, and John Kasich from Ohio, who people think - he's a former governor there - people think would be a much stronger candidate. But Kasich himself has said that, you know, he doesn't know if there's actually a path to beat President Trump, although he's keeping the door open.
CHANG: And why is that? I mean, why isn't Trump facing any serious primary challenger right now? Because there have been a lot of vocal Republican critics of him.
MONTANARO: There have been some vocal Republican critics, I wouldn't necessarily say many, especially in Washington. But the fact is President Trump is very popular with the Republican base. We had Republican campaign managers, for example, in the 2016 election say that his base was made of titanium. And there's really no explanation or reason to say that there would be any change in that at this point. He hasn't moved beyond his base.
You know, Republicans in Congress, many of them privately don't approve of how the president has done his job. But they don't really challenge him either, and that's because if they want to get anything done, they know they have to deal with the White House. And it's not a good idea to call out the president. And people who have tried have either left the party, been primaried or retired.
CHANG: That's true. I mean, there was Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, Jeff Flake of Arizona, others. But not every Republican who's been critical of Trump has left the party. So, again, what is the fear of challenging him?
MONTANARO: Well, look. Surveys have shown that Trump retains very high levels of support with Republicans in the 80%, 90% range. Now, there's some question as to whether that's because Republican voters just love him or if it's because many of them are starting to identify more as independents. But that's actually a trend we saw start for about a decade before President Trump came into office.
What we know is this - these officeholders privately admit and sometimes publicly disagree with him. Think about people like Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, even Mitt Romney. These are all people who've had to temper their criticism because they see the power the president wields among primary voters. And they're tactical enough to know that they need to work with him to get stuff done.
CHANG: OK. So looking past the primaries to the general election in 2020, what does any of this that we're seeing now say about Trump's reelection chances?
MONTANARO: Well, look. Not having a serious primary challenger certainly means one less big hurdle that he has to face. And that's the kind of thing that's imperiled past presidents, someone like Gerald Ford or Democrat Jimmy Carter or Republican George H.W. Bush. They faced serious primary challenges, and then they lost in a general election.
But it's kind of a chicken-and-egg thing because were those primaries really created because their base wasn't that strong to begin with or did they wind up losing because of the primary challenge? I think some people would argue they weren't very strong candidates to start with. The base had started to leave them, and there was an opening for others.
CHANG: That's NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.
MONTANARO: You're so welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.