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Opinion A pre-Trump Republican probes for an opening in the 2024 field

Then-House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) answers questions at a news conference on Capitol Hill in March 2014. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Mike Rogers, a Republican former congressman from Michigan, is a snapshot of what his party looked like before the Donald Trump circus arrived. He is a free-market conservative, and a former FBI agent with strong national-security experience from his years running the House Intelligence Committee.

This brand of mainstream conservatism has seemed on its way to extinction. But maybe it has a second life, with Trump newly vulnerable and Republicans increasingly worrying that they won’t win without a broader, steadier image.

It’s a sign of the ferment in the Republican Party these days that Rogers has been spending time recently in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — giving speeches and meeting activists. He’s not running for president; he’s not even formally exploring a bid yet. As Iowa Republican public affairs strategist John Stineman, who’s advising a Rogers policy group, puts it: “He’s exploring whether to explore.”

The bet that Rogers and a long list of other prospective candidates are weighing is that Republicans don’t want to be the party of crazy anymore. The GOP wants to win in 2024, and after the drubbing that extreme Trump-backed candidates took in the midterms, the former president looks like a loser. Trump remains popular with his base, but the latest polls show that less than half of Republicans back him for 2024. “This race is wide open,” argues Stineman.

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Rogers is among the least known in the potential field of candidates. He doesn’t register in the latest Harvard-Harris poll, which shows Trump with 46 percent support; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at 20 percent; former vice president Mike Pence at 7 percent; Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) at 3 percent; former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley at 2 percent; and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) at 1 percent each. But so early in the game, this is mostly a name-recognition exercise.

Rogers told me this week that, as he visits early primary states, “I’m getting a lot of encouragement from people to turn that into something for 2024.” He confronts the dilemma that every other would-be candidate faces — how to repudiate Trump without alienating the voters he brought into the party. “Trump’s time has passed, but we still want to speak to people who are frustrated with where America is going,” Rogers said. He wants Trump voters, even if the former president’s tactics are “clearly destructive.”

What interests me about Rogers is that he actually got things done when he was in Congress. He became chairman in 2011 of a House Intelligence Committee that had become so partisan it was dysfunctional, and with support of the ranking Democrat, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.), he made it work. The committee passed authorization bills for the first time in years. Rogers became his party’s most prominent foreign policy spokesman, appearing on more Sunday talk shows than any other member of Congress in 2014, the year he announced he would be retiring.

During Trump’s presidency, Rogers went into the wilderness, which might be an advantage now, because he doesn’t carry any Trump-era baggage. Now, Rogers is direct and unambiguous in rejecting Trump’s claims that he won the 2020 election, and in condemning the violence that followed. “Biden was lawfully elected to the presidency,” he says. As for the Jan. 6 insurrection: “There is never a time in American democracy when violence accomplishes what you want. … It is giving up on our Constitution when you storm the Capitol to try to change an election.”

For Republicans such as Rogers and a half-dozen others who oppose Trump, the political rationale is simple math. To win in 2024, Trump would likely have to win some combination of six battleground states he lost in 2020 — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Trump-backed candidates did poorly in most of those states this month. Republicans who want to regain the White House can count the numbers.

Republicans who have heard Rogers’s recent speeches in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina all say pretty much the same thing. The beefy ex-FBI agent is good at retail politics. When he talks about the problems of manufacturing workers, he has the advantage of actually having worked on an assembly line. When he warns about the competitive threat from China, he speaks as a former Intelligence Committee chairman and now as chairman of MITRE Corp., a government-backed defense think tank.

When Republicans talk about 2024, Rogers “should definitely be in the conversation, no question about it,” says Van Hipp, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party who invited Rogers to speak last month at Wofford College in Spartanburg. A New Hampshire Republican campaign consultant who heard Rogers speak at St. Anselm College in Manchester this month said the audience reacted warmly and it was a relief that “it wasn’t about party infighting.”

Rogers’s New Hampshire speech was two days after midterm elections, and he told a story about fighting organized crime back in his FBI days that concluded with the punch line: “There’s nothing like a good beating to keep the family together.” Rogers and the many other might-be candidates are hoping that after getting roughed up this month, the Republican family will turn to a candidate who can re-create some of the party unity that was shattered during the Trump years.