They’ve spent the last two years campaigning and fundraising for candidates, introducing themselves to voters and activists in early primary states and courting the Republican Party’s donors and powerbrokers.
That was the fun part. Now the Republicans considering runs for president are confronting a pressing question: Whether — and how — they really want to take on former President Donald Trump.
With Trump expected to announce a comeback campaign next week and the midterm election now over, the 2024 primary is gradually coming into view. Some would-be candidates must decide whether the party’s weaker-than-expected showing in Tuesday’s election is evidence that Trump is beatable. Others must determine whether they can run against the former president after previously saying they wouldn’t.
And everyone must reckon with the question of whether it’s worth it to challenge a man famous for seeking revenge on those who’ve opposed him.
This is what prospective candidates are weighing as they decide whether they’re going to run for the White House or stay on the sidelines as Trump runs for a second term, according to interviews with Republican strategists and officials.
Assessing a potential moment of weakness
Trump had hoped to suck up the oxygen in the party by declaring his candidacy shortly after the midterms, blocking out other Republicans looking to run. The former president teased an announcement on Nov. 15 — stepping on plans made by his former vice president, Mike Pence, who has a memoir coming out that day and is kicking off an extensive media tour.
But Tuesday’s midterm results, top Republicans say, are almost certain to fuel the chances that Trump faces competition, with a host of would-be rivals sensing possible weakness. First among them is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who scored a lopsided reelection win — and who the former president has begun to attack on social media and in public comments.
Tuesday “was a huge springboard for DeSantis if he wants it. Republicans are sick of losing and he’s a proven winner right now on an otherwise tough night,” said Scott Jennings, who was a top political adviser to former President George W. Bush.
While DeSantis has deflected questions about interest in a 2024 bid, he is among the speakers at next week’s Republican Jewish Coalition conference in Las Vegas, a traditional party cattle call that is expected to draw donors interested in scoping out potential presidential candidates.
Avoiding the clown car effect
But while Trump faces the looming threat of competition, it could also play to his advantage.
During his 2016 primary win, Trump prevailed over a cast of Republican opponents who splintered the vote, giving him pluralities in key states. Should an unwieldy group of candidates emerge this time around, the same dynamic could repeat itself.
That prospect has alarmed some Republicans who want to move on from the former president. In the wake of Tuesday’s outcome, a number of party strategists suggested that top figures in the GOP should quickly rally around DeSantis, turning him into a deterrent force against other candidates jumping in. One of the party’s biggest donors, investor Ken Griffin, has signaled he’s behind the Florida governor should he run.
Clearing the field, however, could prove difficult: An array of prospective contenders spent the last two years cultivating donors, traveling to early primary states and setting up political action committees.
And not everyone agrees that pressuring Republicans out of the race is a good idea.
“The more candidates running the better,” said Terry Sullivan, who managed the 2016 primary campaign of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who fell short to Trump. “Republicans shouldn’t put all their eggs in one basket.”
Weighing the personal cost of combat with Trump
For all the interest many Republicans have in running for president, would-be candidates — and their donors, staffers and family members — are going to have to decide whether they have the stomach to take on a former president known for having a vindictive streak.
Potential 2024 hopefuls have spent the last two years raising money, giving big speeches and traveling to early states under the thinly veiled cover of helping the party prepare for the midterms or fueling their reelection campaigns. That excuse doesn’t work anymore, and further steps toward a presidential race risk direct conflict with Trump.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump mercilessly savaged those who tried to stop him — a roster that ranged from the megadonor Ricketts family to former GOP nominee Mitt Romney to two of the party’s young stars, Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who ran against him. While some eventually made their way back into Trump’s good graces, others never did.
Should Trump indeed decide to run again in 2024, the Republican political class will face a similar decision. While the prospect of defeating Trump may be what some in the party want, they will also have to gauge their comfort level with possible retaliation should he make it back into the White House.
Trump has already hinted that he is ready to go after DeSantis: Speaking to reporters earlier this week, the former president said he was prepared to reveal unflattering information about the governor should he run.
“I know more about him than anybody other than perhaps his wife,” Trump said.
Avoiding getting boxed in by past support
A forthcoming Trump announcement could impact the decisions of other possible rivals, including one member of his administration: former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Speaking to reporters last year, Haley said she would defer to Trump on the 2024 race.
“I would not run if President Trump ran, and I would talk to him about it. That’s something that we will have a conversation about, at some point if that decision is something that has to be made,” she said at the time.
Many top Republicans expressed surprise at Haley’s proclamation, believing that she boxed herself in. In the months to come, others looking to enter the race, including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, kept their options open and said Trump’s 2024 decision would not affect theirs.
Whether Haley would actually stand down, however, is unclear. The former ambassador and ex-South Carolina governor was among the most prominent Republican surrogates in the country during the midterm election. She recently published a book and has been raising money for candidates and political groups — all hallmarks of a pre-presidential campaign.
Haley’s fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Tim Scott, could also face questions about whether he would join the race should Trump do so.
Last fall, Scott responded “of course” when asked if he would support a Trump 2024 bid. But more recently, Scott has dodged the question.
Asked the same question during a September appearance on CNN, Scott would only say that he wanted “the same policy positions we had before.”
Figuring out the timing: Who goes second? And who waits longer?
While an array of Republicans are eyeing the race, top party officials say there’s little evidence any of them have built up the machinery necessary to launch a presidential campaign — something that requires staff, fundraising capabilities and the planning to produce a well-orchestrated rollout.
Even though some Republicans are eager to see DeSantis enter the race sooner rather than later, others say it doesn’t make sense for him to jump in before his January inauguration for a second term as governor of Florida.
In fact, top Republicans say they don’t expect any of the party’s other major 2024 contenders to get into the race until sometime early next year, and that anyone considering it would have until the middle of 2023 to jump in.
But for some, an early entrance might make sense.
Those who’ve been the most aggressive in opposing Trump — a group that includes Christie and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan — could get attention by swiftly launching a campaign and leveraging their status, however temporary it might be, as a one-on-one foil to the former president.
The two are making early moves: Both are slated to appear at the RJC, while Hogan is set to attend a Republican Governors Association gathering next week in Orlando, Fla. He also invited supporters to a gala celebration on Nov. 30. The Maryland governor has said he won’t make a decision on whether to run until after he leaves office in January.
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