Trump’s Backers Don’t Think He Should Debate
Plus: Ted Cruz might be getting a serious challenger.
Good afternoon, Press Pass readers. The Senate is in town this week but the House is not, despite a looming potential default on the national debt that could come “as early as June 1,” as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. I’ll have more on that this Thursday, so make sure to subscribe to Bulwark+ if you haven’t already so you don’t miss paid editions of this newsletter.
Today’s edition is focused on the 2024 campaign. I talk to Trump’s backers in the Senate and ask them about whether Trump should participate in the primary debates, and then take a look at a potential challenger to Ted Cruz’s re-election bid in Texas.
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Lately, Trump has been threatening to skip out on this election cycle’s primary debates. He listed a myriad of reasons why he shouldn’t have to participate, including “MAGA hating anchors” and unfavorable debate locations, in a recent Truth Social post:
Some of Trump’s most die-hard supporters—people like failed candidate for Arizona governor Kari Lake—think the primary should be scrapped altogether so the party can rally around him. But for now, Trump isn’t going that far. He just doesn’t want to have to debate.
It’s not an empty threat. Trump’s tantrums have resulted in no-shows in each of the past two presidential election cycles: In 2016, he skipped the primary debate just before the Iowa caucuses, as well as a later primary debate that was ultimately canceled as a result of his refusal to appear; in 2020, he balked at the second general election debate to avoid facing Joe Biden again.
It’s also difficult to see the political upside for Trump of participating in primary debates. They open him up to criticism from his fellow Republicans, including some who would stand to gain a lot of electoral visibility from taking a stand against him. He would have to defend his record in front of a large audience and respond in the moment to attacks targeting his potential weak spots (his administration’s COVID response, for example—or, on the other hand, his embrace of the vaccine, a position putting him at odds with the conspiratorial parts of the base). And you could also argue that Trump’s previous refusals to debate didn’t meaningfully affect his overall electoral performance.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel is walking a tightrope with Trump by trying to maintain an aura of neutrality on the debate question.
“I talk to President Trump all the time,” McDaniel told Fox News host Brian Kilmeade. “We’ve talked to all the potential candidates. We’ve let them know the schedule. We’ve announced the debates.”
“But every campaign and every candidate is going to have to make a decision,” she said. “He’s going to have to make that decision. I think he’ll do it.”
What do some of the senators who’ve endorsed Trump think? Here’s what they told me:
J.D. Vance (Ohio)
I don’t know that it’s advantageous [to participate]. I think Trump has such a big platform and people already know him. And it probably brings more to anybody else than it brings to him.
It’s ultimately President Trump's call and I trust his political judgment more than mine.
Tommy Tuberville (Alabama)
I missed my first couple* just for the simple fact that I’d been out there longer working at it and . . . people knew more about what I was saying than anybody else. [If it] comes to a level playing field and you start having to compete and, you know, things that people haven’t heard, I think you just let the other ones speak for themselves for a while. Then you put them on board and see what happens.
*Tuberville famously refused to participate in Republican primary debates against Jeff Sessions in 2020, even on friendly networks like Fox News. During the general election, he also refused to debate his Democratic opponent, then-incumbent Sen. Doug Jones, whom he nonetheless beat by over 20 points.
Steve Daines (Montana)
We’ll wait and see. They’ll get that sorted out.
Bill Hagerty (Tennessee)
He’ll do fine in any debate—you’ve seen him I’m sure—he’ll be fine in any debate that he undertakes. I just don’t know if it’s the best [strategy at this time].
Ted Cruz is likely getting a challenger
Former Tennessee Titans linebacker and current member of Congress Colin Allred is inching toward a Senate run against Ted Cruz, Politico reported Monday:
A former NFL player-turned-civil rights attorney, Allred has been quietly prepping for a run against Cruz for months. During his two successful reelection bids since ousting an entrenched incumbent in 2018, Allred has proven a prolific fundraiser.
Allred—or any Democrat challenging Cruz—will face extremely unfavorable odds. While some formerly red states like Arizona and Georgia have shifted purple and elected Democrats in recent years, Texas has kept its deep red hue for now, its big blue cities notwithstanding. But in the 2018 midterm elections, Cruz beat his last challenger, Beto O’Rourke, by only 2.6 percent. It was the closest Senate race in Texas in 40 years. If that margin indicates a potential trend, perhaps Allred does have a shot at putting some fresh paint on the map in 2024.
For more on Allred, check out this episode of The Next Level from a few weeks ago in which Tim and JVL interviewed him about his potential challenge to Cruz and other issues in the new Republican-controlled Congress.