The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s 2022: An early look at the GOP hopefuls

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R) speaks during a news conference in Newark, N.J., on Nov. 29, 2017. (Julio Cortez/AP, File)
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This midterm election year seems predestined to banish the Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. The country senses infirmity in its 79-year-old commander in chief and a new radicalism at the heart of his party — and many worry that our adversaries in China, Russia and Iran sense an opening. Buckle up for 2022; the year in politics is going to be rough, and that’s true even if vaccines and boosters can stay ahead of the variants.

The new year will also see the race for 2024 move into first gear — and beyond.

Barack Obama adviser David Axelrod once proposed that when Americans voted in an open-seat presidential election (and I expect his rule will apply no matter what in 2024), they seek the opposite kind of personality for their next leader. The shadow campaign for the GOP nomination opens this year with a clear front-runner, former president Donald Trump, but he may well choose to preside over the GOP rather than run it. Trump was 70 when he won in 2016; he will be 78 in 2024, and he has watched President Biden age in the White House. Does Trump want to bet that Father Time will skip over him? The indignities of aging in front of the entire world are many, and of the sort Trump is said to hate — the applesauce and pudding jokes — and so I wonder.

The ranks of the top tier among possible GOP presidential nominees, in alphabetical order, are Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.

If the world grows even darker and the dangers even more evident, Cotton and Pompeo — two former soldiers — start with some advantages. Cotton can sound like a professor reading Abraham Lincoln’s speech at the Cooper Union, measuring out well-developed arguments rooted in political theory, and displaying an intellectual heft balanced by the experience of leading a platoon of the 101st Airborne division in Baghdad.

Pompeo is the best qualified by experience to deal with the People’s Republic of China, our country’s greatest threat. The senior ranks of the Chinese Communist Party know Pompeo has their number: expansionist, zealous Leninist cadres bent on hegemony, and not just over their neighbors. Great power competition doesn’t faze the top-of-his-class U.S. Military Academy graduate. The former congressman, top U.S. diplomat and CIA director may be the combination America wants after three more years of, well, what 2021 has been.

Cruz has party tradition on his side. He was the GOP runner-up to Trump in 2016, and the GOP has a deep muscle memory of passing the baton to the candidate who has been around the track and won the silver. But that rule applies only when the gold medalist leaves the field and, so far, Trump isn’t disappearing.

DeSantis is the combative populist who has tucked his Harvard law degree (Cotton, Cruz and Pompeo each have one, too) inside his jacket. “Comfortably Smug” is perhaps the most influential of the conservative podcasts, and when its proprietors began referring to the “Free State of Florida,” they gifted DeSantis with a catch phrase of incalculable value. If there’s a pole position, DeSantis has it. (Note: In 2016, that advantage supposedly belonged to then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.)

South Carolina’s Scott is a man of kindness and deep Christian faith — these attributes do not always pair up — and is almost certain to be on the 2024 ticket somewhere. Scott is the promise of reconciliation across parties and colors, which is an almost desperate desire among millions of Americans of both parties. He’s also a gifted orator.

That’s the top tier — and while they sit well below the former president, it’s possible one or more will run whether or not the former president does. Whispers of shocking private polls abound, as they often do at this stage of the race. My bet, with three years to go, is that Trump runs hard.

Just below these five are other familiar names, including both senators from Florida, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott. Former vice president Mike Pence is beloved by traditional conservatives but hated by the former president’s most fervent supporters. Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and former national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien hail from central casting, but seem as destined for future Cabinet jobs as Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Kristi L. Noem of South Dakota.

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, increasingly critical of Trump, seems determined to run even if it means a lone, one-on-one battle with Trump.

This race has already begun. The Republican National Committee would make a lot of money by staging early candidate forums featuring some or all of the above contenders. GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel should dictate terms to broadcast partners, and invite four to eight hopefuls to gatherings devoted to flaying Team Biden and underscoring the menace in Asia. Such orchestrated gatherings would have huge audiences and help every Republican running for Congress in 2022 — and other offices down the ticket. What is she waiting for?

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