As Donald Trump considers another run for the White House, polls show he is the most popular figure in the Republican Party. But it was not always like this.
Competing at one point against a dozen rivals for the presidential nomination in 2016, Trump won only about a third of the vote in early swing states. He even lost in Iowa, which kicks off the nomination process.
But he prevailed because those in the party who opposed his brand of divisive politics were never able to unite around a single rival. That same dynamic could repeat itself as Trump mulls a new run for president as soon as this summer.
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With a growing list of candidates preparing to run, even a Trump diminished by two impeachments and growing legal vulnerabilities could hold a commanding position in a fractured, multi-candidate primary.
“I’m afraid it could end the same way 2016 did, which was basically everyone thought everyone else should get out,” said Republican strategist Mike DuHaime, who advised former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign that year. “I think every major candidate realized that he or she would have a better chance against Trump one-on-one. But of course each person thought that he or she should be the one to take that photo and no one stepped out of the way. … And then it was too late.”
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Anxiety is mounting as a growing list of potential rivals take ever more brazen steps, delivering high-profile speeches, running ads, courting donors and making repeated visits to early voting states.
That group now includes more than a dozen potential candidates, including former Trump Vice President Mike Pence; his former Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo; and Senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Rick Scott of Florida and Tim Scott of South Carolina. Everything could work with the former president’s policies.
In the anti-Trump lane, politicians like Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan are raising their profiles.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is increasingly seen as Trump’s heir apparent, even by Trump’s most loyal supporters, and Trump’s allies see him as their most formidable potential challenger.
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Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and others have said they will not challenge Trump if he goes ahead. But others, including Christie, seem willing to fight, even if they seem like long shots.
“I’m definitely thinking seriously about it. I probably won’t make any decisions until the end of the year,” Christie said in a recent interview. He has urged the party to put Trump and his continued obsession with the 2020 election behind them.
“For me, it’s about the party needing to go in a new direction from a personality perspective, and continuing to have someone who can bring strong leadership, tough leadership, that the country needs, but doesn’t have all the the rest. accompanying drama,” she said. “I hear the same things from donors as I do from voters: that they’re very concerned that we can’t put ourselves in a position to make 2024 about anything other than the good of the country.”
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Pompeo, who has had a busy travel schedule and plans to return to Iowa this summer, said in a recent interview that he has spent time reading and listening to President Ronald Reagan’s speeches as he prepares for a possible run.
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“We are preparing to stay in the fight,” he said last month as he courted evangelical Christians at a gathering in Nashville, Tennessee.
He said he and his wife would sit down after the November election and “think and pray and decide where to best serve. It could be running again for elected office. We can choose a different path. But we’re not going to walk away from these things that I’ve been working on for 30 years. They matter too much.
Pompeo outlined a possible approach in the same mold as Trump.
“He was a disrupter that was most needed in 2016, there is no doubt about that,” Pompeo said. “And now the task is to take that set of understandings, that set of principles, defend them and build on them. And it will take a lot of work to do that, leaders of real strength and character to do that.”
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Such open conversation comes as Trump faces a cascade of escalating legal problems.
The congressional committee investigating the January 6 insurrection has released increasingly damaging information about Trump’s final weeks in office. The Justice Department has its own investigation. In Georgia, the prosecutor investigating Trump’s potentially illegal meddling in the 2020 state election has stepped up her investigation of her by subpoenaing members of Trump’s inner circle. In New York, Trump, his namesake son and his daughter Ivanka have agreed to answer questions under oath beginning next week in the state attorney general’s civil investigation into their business practices.
Mick Mulvaney, a former South Carolina congressman who served as Trump’s White House acting chief of staff, said the moves suggested potential candidates “might see a vacancy where it didn’t exist two months ago.”
“Trump fatigue could be a real thing,” he said, with voters wondering if, if they vote for another candidate, “they can get the same policies without all the baggage.”
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At the same time, Trump has seen some of his endorsed primary candidates falter. Those who have won, including Senate hopefuls JD Vance in Ohio and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, have done so with about 30% of the vote, meaning two-thirds of party voters opposed Trump’s pick. .
“I don’t think anyone underestimates Trump. There is a reason he is the most sought-after endorsement in every Republican primary,” Republican strategist Alex Conant said. “That said, I think there is a recognition that many Republican voters are looking to the future and ready for what’s next.”
To what extent remains an open question. During a trip to Iowa this week, Cotton declined to comment on Trump’s position. But the senator said he hoped to be “an effective national leader, not only for my party but for the American people in my role in the Senate and any other future role that I may play.”
Still, Cotton argued, candidates should accept Trump’s legacy.
“I know that Donald Trump is very popular with our voters who appreciate the successes he achieved over four years in a very hostile environment. They don’t want Republicans running against that legacy, because they see that legacy as a great success,” he said Thursday in Cambridge, Iowa.
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Trump continues to move forward with his own events.
On Friday night, he campaigned in Las Vegas alongside Adam Laxalt, his choice for the Nevada Senate. And on Saturday night she planned a rally in Anchorage, Alaska, to campaign with Kelly Tshibaka, whom she endorsed in her race against Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and others, including former Governor Sarah Palin, now a candidate for Congress. .
Conant said it made sense for the candidates to keep testing the waters for now.
“Many potential candidates are realizing that 2024 may be their last best chance, regardless of what Trump does,” he said. “There’s a very vulnerable Democrat in the White House, the Republicans are likely to win, and if it’s not Trump, they’re basically going to be sidelined for the next 10 years.”
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Still, Conant, who served as communications director for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid, noted the similarities.
“It seems that it is becoming more and more clear that there will be a lot of people running for president. And while I think there is an appetite for something different, the alternative to Trump needs to unite around one candidate,” she said. “That never happened in 2016. And it might not happen in 2024.”
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