4 more years: Trump freezes 2024 presidential fieldNovember 16, 2020
Kevin Cramer called Donald Trump last week to convey his support for the president’s efforts to contest the election results when Trump dropped a casual aside that snapped the North Dakota senator to attention.
“If this doesn’t work out, I’ll just run again in four years,” Trump said.
Cramer could only chuckle at the president musing about the next presidential race while he’s still in office. But to the lineup of Republican hopefuls with their eyes on becoming the GOP’s post-Trump standard bearer, the president’s remark was no laughing matter.
While Trump’s loss was supposed to trigger a Republican Party reset, his flirtation with a 2024 bid ensures he’ll remain the dominant force in the party and cast a shadow over anyone looking to succeed him. Even the possibility of Trump running again will impede other Republicans from laying groundwork for their own bids — lest they upset Trump and his tens of millions of supporters, many of whom are convinced the election was stolen.
“Of course it makes it more difficult for people who might want to run,” Cramer said, before adding: “It’s not up to him to make it easy for other people to run.”
Those who’ve worked for Trump — Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley — are in perhaps the toughest spot of all. Each would have to maneuver around the soon-to-be-former president after spending the last four years aligning themselves with him.
But some argue the three would benefit from the president freezing the 2024 field. Pence, Pompeo and Haley have used their roles in the administration to establish national profiles, build donor networks and deepen their ties to conservative activists. In the event Trump eventually decides not to run, they would start out a primary with advantages over others who are further behind organizationally.
While Pence has been relatively low-profile since the election, he has begun telegraphing how he might distinguish himself: as a Trump loyalist who shies away from the president’s more divisive rhetoric. During a closed-door appearance Friday evening before the conservative Council for National Policy, the vice president spoke out about “defending the integrity of the vote” in post-election court cases without addressing the debunked conspiracy theories being espoused by Trump’s legal team.
But for many would-be Republican candidates, building a national political apparatus could prove tricky — or worse — with Trump in the 2024 mix. Strategists might be fearful of being blacklisted during a second Trump term if they work for another potential candidate. Then there’s the task of courting donors, who could be reluctant to get crosswise with Trump.
“The prospect of a run by President Trump in 2024 will put a pall over other prospective candidates cultivating donors,” said Northern Virginia-based GOP contributor Bobbie Kilberg, who voiced eagerness for the party to move on from Trump.
It “perplexes me since we could have numerous excellent candidates who should not be put on hold for years,” she added.
More public actions, like taking trips to early voting states like Iowa or New Hampshire, could be perceived as an open affront to Trump and potentially alienate his voters.
“Who wants to be the first candidate to look like they’re challenging Trump for the nomination?” said Alex Conant, who was spokesperson on Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The prospect of a future Trump bid is already forcing would-be 2024 hopefuls to respond. Rubio told reporters last week that Trump would “certainly be the frontrunner and will probably be the nominee” if he ran.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) was more evasive during a Fox News appearance, saying, “I know everyone likes to speculate on the next election, but I think we should put this election on the books before we move on to that speculation.”
Those who’ve previously clashed with the president, like Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) or Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, are less likely to be deterred by a Trump candidacy and are staking out an anti-Trump lane. During a Monday speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, Hogan offered a direct rebuke of Trump’s Republican Party, warning that “divisive rhetoric and toxic politics is alienating large parts of the country.”
Hogan added: “Some Republicans simply want to return to the way things were before 2016 while others want to continue in the same direction as if this election never happened.”
Trump has told White House officials he could announce his 2024 candidacy as soon as he bows out of 2020. Some advisers are skeptical he’s serious, saying it could simply be a ruse to raise money for his legal fund or maintain his relevance.
But Trump has already begun inserting himself into future party business and elections, a sign that he wants to stay involved.
The president has endorsed Ronna McDaniel to serve another term as Republican National Committee chair, virtually ensuring that a top ally will be atop the organization for the next two years. And in a Monday tweet, Trump took aim at Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, who has called Joe Biden the president-elect and is up for reelection in 2022.
“Who will be running for Governor of the Great State of Ohio? Will be hotly contested!” Trump wrote.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said the extent to which Trump stays involved in down-ballot elections would indicate his real level of interest in seeking another term.
“Whether or not the President plays a big role in Georgia and then 2022 elections will determine what happens in 2024,” said Walker, who ran against Trump in the 2016 GOP primary, referring to the upcoming Georgia Senate runoffs.
Many senior Republicans express frustration over Trump’s dalliance with a 2024 comeback, arguing that it will be impossible for the party to turn the page and for other candidates to emerge. Even if Trump isn’t serious, they note he’s paralyzing others by not taking steps to shoot the speculation down.
“I suspect he will play this Kabuki dance right up until the last day of filing for the 2024 election,” said Terry Sullivan, who was Rubio’s 2016 campaign manager. “He has no interest in the future of the party. He never has.”
As they tiptoe around the president, potential candidates are heading to Georgia to raise their national profiles. Rubio visited the state last week, and Pence is expected to take a bus tour outside Atlanta on Friday. Cotton and Florida Sen. Rick Scott, meanwhile, are running TV ads in the state bashing the Democratic Senate candidates — while simultaneously introducing themselves to voters.
Some Republicans are taking on specific, profile-raising projects. Scott is taking over the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey is poised to take the reins of the Republican Governors Association — perches that provide an entrée to the party’s biggest donors. If the 2022 midterms go the GOP’s way, they will also be able to make the case they played a big role in the party’s success.
“Trump will definitely be the dominant force in the party if he either runs or hints at running. But politics never stands still,” said Ari Fleischer, who was press secretary in the George W. Bush White House. “Other candidates will test the waters, especially in the 2022 cycle as they boost congressional candidates without declaring their presidential intentions.”
Some Republicans say the best hope for 2024 aspirants is for Trump to gradually fade away — either when the realization sets in with voters that he is a defeated former president or because of damage suffered in potential post-White House legal battles.
But others say that’s unlikely. As he leaves the White House, Trump has an iron grip on his party, with legions of loyalists who aren’t ready to move on to someone else.
“If Donald Trump wants the Republican nomination in 2024 that’s his,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a staunch Trump ally. “That may leave a lot of thirsty presidential aspirants still thirsty. I say, ‘Stay thirsty my friends.’”