The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The shadow race is underway for the Republican presidential nomination

At least 15 potential 2024 candidates are traveling the country, huddling with donors or testing out messages — even if Trump runs

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks during the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 24, 2022, in Orlando. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

One day last month, Mike Pence secretly huddled with some of Michigan’s top donors, including the kingmaking DeVos family, as he pitched his vision for the Republican Party before flying to Georgia to campaign against former president Donald Trump’s choice for governor.

Tom Cotton, the Republican senator from Arkansas, has developed a long PowerPoint presentation about how previous candidacies for president failed — and has shown it to donors and others during meetings on how he would run a successful campaign.

Advisers and allies of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, have discussed the margins for his 2022 reelection that would help put him in position to run for president in 2024 — aiming to beat the three percentage point margin that separated Trump and President Biden in the state in 2020.

With months to go before the midterm elections, the shadow campaign for the 2024 Republican nomination is well underway, with at least 15 potential candidates traveling the country, drawing up plans, huddling with donors or testing out messages at various levels of preparation. The quadrennial circus — described by more than 20 people with direct knowledge who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private machinations — has kicked into gear despite the public hints from Trump that he too plans to join the scrum “a third time.”

Interviews with over a dozen GOP operatives indicate he is not clearing the field, and a range of candidates plan to take him on from different angles.

“They’re all going to run against him,” said Tony Fabrizio, Trump’s longtime pollster. “If you have the former vice president running, what does that say for the loyalty argument?”

Some candidates and their teams have made clear that they plan to campaign on moving the party beyond Trump, who continues to dominate early polling, while the vast majority are simply plodding forward without addressing the Trump question publicly and in some cases continuing to praise him. They have been encouraged by growing concern among deep-pocketed Republican donors that another Trump run — especially an announcement before the midterms — would help Democrats.

At least six senators have made appearances in Iowa or New Hampshire already, joining former Trump advisers and appointees like Pence, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and former ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley. Nine potential candidates, including former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, have spoken at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, laying out their vision for the future of the party, with Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), a prominent Trump critic with a national profile, scheduled to speak there on June 29. Pompeo in particular has been aggressive at working donors and operatives, asking many what he needs to do to win the nomination. Pompeo has told others he would run against Trump, though he has not made a final decision, people who have spoken to him say.

“They are working hard at it, some more than others,” said Ron Kaufman, a Republican National Committee member from Massachusetts, who had a set of potential candidates over to his house in March as part of a fundraiser for the New Hampshire state party. In addition to Cotton, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) spoke at the event.

“There are a lot of good people who are thinking about it and would like to be president,” said Kaufman, who has been involved in presidential campaigns since 1980. “Former presidents who can serve another term always have a special status at least for the first two years.”

Trump and his allies have begun preparing for an onslaught of competition, as several of Trump’s closest advisers continue to urge him not to announce a campaign before the midterm elections, since they fear it would help Democratic efforts to frame Senate and congressional campaigns around the divisive former president.

“I would be very surprised if they run,” Trump said in an interview earlier this year. But he has begun asking advisers how he should attack some of his former Cabinet members and allies, as well as candidates he previously endorsed. DeSantis poses particular problems, two advisers said, because he has gained such favor with Trump’s base.

Internal polling by Club for Growth and other private polls show Trump easily winning primaries at the moment in many early states, though such polls are historically a poor predictor of the outcome two years out.

“I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t run. All the polling shows he would be the front-runner by a country mile. The day that Trump makes it clear he’s going to run — it would be a mountain to climb to beat him,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a frequent confidant. “If it’s a policy election, he’s in good shape. It’s his primary to lose.”

Many potential candidates disagree, pointing to a long history of early front-runners for presidential nominations falling out of favor. Former Arkansas governor Bill Clinton was not a contender in some 1990 polling for the Democratic nomination. In June of 2006, Gallup found that 36 percent of Democratic-leaning voters supported then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) for the 2008 nomination, followed by 16 percent for former vice president Al Gore. The eventual winner of both the nomination and the presidency, Barack Obama, did not yet rate.

The same pattern has haunted Republicans. In June of 2006, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani led the Republican field in Gallup with 29 percent support among Republican-leaning voters. He would finish the primaries two years later without winning a single delegate. Then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who had polled hear the top of the pack in 2015, dropped out two months after declaring his candidacy.

In Iowa, which is expected to host the first Republican caucus in 2024, political power brokers like Bob Vander Plaats, the president of the Family Leader, a Christian conservative group, has been telling people that even if Trump runs there is a good chance of a contested campaign.

“If you come at Trump from the left — say a Mitt Romney approach — I don’t think that would ever work,” he said. “If you came at Trump from the right — more like a Pence or a Pompeo or a Ted Cruz or a DeSantis — then I think people would be willing to listen.”

After visits by Pence and Pompeo in recent months, the Family Leader has invited Fox News Host Tucker Carlson to speak at its annual conference in July.

In addition to the growing candidate competition, Trump is facing declining influence among the Republican high-dollar donor community who supported his 2020 campaign, as many fear the risks of another Trump candidacy, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions. In conversations with RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and others, some of the party’s top donors have suggested the party needs to move on, according to the people.

“Republicans think he is declining in relevance and they want someone else,” said one adviser close to major Republican donors. “But people feel like they have to appease him. We are in the appeasement phase.”

Some activists have complained privately that he won’t talk as much about inflation, gas prices and other topics that they view as the strongest lines of attack against Biden. Christie, who is eyeing a run, said people are increasingly talking about issues other than Trump’s preferred topic: his false claims of a stolen 2020 election.

“As I travel around the country campaigning for other Republican candidates, there is more and more doubt and disinterest regarding the president’s claims the 2020 election was stolen. They care about the issues affecting them,” Christie said in an interview.

Pence views South Carolina as key to his campaign, and has repeatedly traveled to meet with donors and operatives in the state. He also has met with some of the party’s richest donors and flew to Israel on megadonor Miriam Adelson’s jet. Allies are eyeing a spring 2023 announcement.

“At some point early next year, they’ll get away and try to discern where their calling is, and where they’re being led to serve,” said Marc Short, his longtime chief of staff, referring to Pence and his wife, Karen. “It won’t be based on any other one person.”

But some donors and even allies question whether Pence — who refused Trump’s demands to attempt to overturn the 2020 election — can gain traction against his former boss, and he has privately and publicly shown little desire to attack Trump.

DeSantis has been quietly building his fundraising networks while grabbing national headlines for his challenges to the Biden administration and for his focus on culture war issues. Without mentioning Trump, he has told donors, “No one’s nomination is inevitable,” according to a person to whom his comments have been relayed.

Beating Trump’s 2020 margin of three percentage points in Florida has become a key campaign goal, according to three people familiar with the conversations. They said DeSantis’s wife, Casey, a former television host and among a small circle of confidants, wants him to run for president. The couple believes that the governor’s skills are uniquely matched to the current political climate, and are wary of waiting six years, by which time the tides may have shifted. DeSantis has not indicated if he would defer a campaign if Trump runs.

A spokesman for DeSantis’s reelection campaign, David Abrams, said the governor is “focused on winning a resounding reelection this fall in Florida because that’s what’s best for the future of Florida.” He called suggestions of other motives “nonsense.”

Behind the scenes, DeSantis and his team think they’ve overtaken Trump with the party’s major donors, according to an ally in touch with the governor. A former aide said DeSantis has spoken about wanting to expand his dominance in that realm, including by getting a contribution from Peter Thiel, the billionaire investor who backed Trump in 2016 and has put nearly $30 million behind a pair of Republican Senate candidates this year. The two have spoken, according to two people familiar with their interactions.

DeSantis has been picking up support in far-flung places, besting Trump in a recent straw poll at a conservative gathering in Colorado.

“I think DeSantis is the only one besides Trump who has a chance in hell. And I would bet a lot of money on that,” said Darren Blanton, a Dallas-based venture capitalist who served as an adviser to Trump’s transition. “At first I thought DeSantis had no chance because he seemed more like an introvert and strategist, but not a charismatic celebrity, and I pretty much told him that to his face. But he has really impressed me by how much better he has gotten.”

Blanton said potential candidates have to show they can turn blue-collar Democrats into Republicans. “And I just don’t think a pasty, old-school, dignified Republican is ever going to do that again,” he said.

Haley and Pompeo are both doing one-on-one calls with major donors, plugging fundraising committees aimed at boosting candidates in the midterms.

Haley in the past month has promoted an upcoming retreat for her group, Stand for America PAC. Among the sums she has brought in for endorsed candidates includes nearly $800,000 for Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and nearly $240,000 for Herschel Walker, the Republican candidate for Senate in Georgia, according to a person familiar with her political operation.

She also went to Mar-a-Lago recently to see Trump for a brief meeting, people familiar with the matter said, and has said she will not run against him.

Pompeo — who prominently campaigned against Trump’s endorsed Pennsylvania Senate candidate, Mehmet Oz, who ended up winning — has used his advocacy for various congressional candidates this cycle to pitch himself as a 2024 contender, telling donors that the “America First” agenda is best embodied by a candidate with a more broadly appealing profile. He has met with dozens of donors and begun hiring a team of advisers.

In the last year, Pompeo reached out to Charlie Kirk, the leader of the influential conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA and an ally of Donald Trump Jr., according to a person familiar with their communication. While Turning Point USA does not endorse candidates, Kirk also controls an affiliated group, Turning Point Action, as well as the recently launched Turning Point PAC, which already has a multimillion dollar war chest.

“I went to an event for Pompeo in L.A., an event in New York and have also met with him,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP donor. “But I’ve been invited to 15 or 20 events he’s doing. He is barnstorming the country. He is very active.”

A person familiar with Pompeo’s political operation said he’s focused “almost exclusively” on helping candidates in races this November but has been engaged in conversations about the prospect of running for president — a decision he’ll make with his family at a later time.

The political team of Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) has been seeking to expand his donor base, reaching out to major contributors far from South Carolina with what one recipient described as “highly sophisticated and personalized communications.” He recently spoke at the Reagan library and has appeared in both New Hampshire and Iowa since 2020.

Sen. Rick Scott, who is running Republican Senate midterm efforts, has been building his own fundraising lists by promoting an extensive set of national policy plans, which have attracted criticism from both Republicans and Democrats. He revised the plan this week, dropping a proposal to require “all Americans” to pay some income tax.

Similarly, Cotton, who has been to Iowa and spoke at the Reagan library, has been revising his slide presentation, which at once point featured five policy areas that explain why he’s electable. “He is diligently putting together a foundation to run,” said Eberhart, the donor who has met with him. “He is very dialed in on New Hampshire.”

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a former homeland security undersecretary, has been among the most diligent potential candidates, planning a trip to New Hampshire, appearing repeatedly on Sunday news talk shows and recently founding a nonprofit, America Strong and Free, to pay staff and fund his policy efforts. He said last month at a Wall Street Journal event that the GOP needs to de-link from Trump and “stay away from the culture of personality.”

“There are going to be very few people standing on the stage that have the breadth of national security experience that he has,” said one Arkansas Republican operative who has tracked Hutchinson’s activities. “He is a party guy, he spoke at the convention in 2016. He is also the first to say it is time to move on.”

Hogan and Christie are also aiming to test the party’s appetite for moving on from Trump, as they have both become frequent critics of his behavior. A Post-ABC News poll released in May found that 6 in 10 Republican and Republican-leaning voters said party leaders should follow Trump’s leadership, compared with 34 percent who wanted to take the party in a different direction.

Bobbie Kilberg, a Trump critic and prominent Virginia donor who has met with multiple would-be candidates, said she was holding her powder dry for a decision.

“It’s going to be an intense 2023. Let’s get through 2022, have a good Christmas and then we can regroup,” she said.

correction

A previous version of this story said Gov. Asa Hutchinson was a former homeland security secretary, He was an undersecretary. The story has been corrected.

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