The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The quiet race to be the GOP’s biggest loser in 2024 begins

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (left) and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. (AP photos) (David Lane; Sue Ogrocki/The Union Leader/AP)
5 min

I understand why Ron DeSantis thinks Republican primary voters might want an alternative to Donald Trump. I get why conservative stalwarts such as Nikki Haley and Chris Christie think the voters might welcome an alternative to DeSantis.

What’s less clear is why Chris Sununu and Asa Hutchinson would think there’s any market in today’s Republican Party for a kinder, gentler voice. Do they really think a pro-governing pragmatist can win the nomination?

The answer is probably not. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other things — celebrity, adoration, even financial opportunity — to be won by trying.

I’m not suggesting that Sununu and Hutchinson, the governor of New Hampshire and a former governor of Arkansas, respectively, don’t tell themselves they’ve got a legitimate shot at becoming the next president. (Hutchinson has already announced his candidacy, and Sununu has said he’s thinking about it.) I’m suggesting there’s a reasonable Plan B.

Who is running for president in 2024? Tracking candidates.

In 2016, a lot of people wondered why John Kasich, then the governor of Ohio, got into the race late and then slogged through months of primaries, long after it was clear that Donald Trump was cruising to the nomination. Kasich won exactly one state — his own. I talked to Kasich a lot back then, and I can tell you: He wanted very much to be president and believed he could win, right up until the moment he knew he couldn’t.

But Kasich came away from that campaign with something that would have seemed unthinkable for most of his career, when he was largely reviled on the left as a blustery, union-busting religious zealot. By standing up to Trump and making the case for civility in public life, he became — at least in the eyes of a lot of Democrats, independents and the news media — the fatherly conscience of the Republican Party.

There’s an established template for this kind of campaign, and it goes back to 2000, when John McCain defied his party and tried to derail George W. Bush’s highly choreographed march to the nomination. For most of his long career in Congress and the Senate, McCain, like Kasich, had been a reliable conservative vote on most everything, and his organization had exerted a distinctly undemocratic control over politics in Arizona.

But in 2000, McCain ran expertly as a bombastic reformer in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, recasting himself as a truth-telling antidote to partisan extremism. In narrowly losing and incurring the contempt of his own party’s leaders, he transformed himself, for a long moment, into the most popular and marketable politician in America.

When McCain (who was nothing if not persistent) finally managed to wrest the nomination in 2008, largely by sucking up to Bush, he found, to his enduring frustration, that he had sacrificed his most powerful asset along the way. By trading in his “maverick” image for the role of Republican elder, he betrayed his most avid constituency.

Four years later, an obscure former governor named Jon Huntsman Jr. returned triumphantly from his post as ambassador to China to run on a similar platform of moderation and civility. He failed spectacularly (accompanying him on his first trip to New Hampshire, I compared him, not unfairly, to the “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer” from “Saturday Night Live”), but even that debacle of a campaign was enough to elevate Huntsman to the roles of minor statesman and frequent media guest.

Incidentally, all three candidates — McCain, Huntsman and Kasich — relied on a renegade image-maker named John Weaver, who can fairly be credited with pioneering this Republican strategy of winning over just about everybody but Republican voters.

If this is the kind of campaign Sununu and Hutchinson have in mind, then ideology has little to do with it. Hutchinson, in fact, is about as socially conservative as you can get. What “moderate” means now, at least to the media and the left, is a refusal to demonize Democrats or cave to conspiracy theories. Most of all, it means clearly condemning Trump and his insurrectionist movement. (I suppose this would make Christie as moderate as anyone, but his previous ties to Trump make him a hard sell as a national healer.)

The odds of winning the nomination with this kind of strategy are probably close to nonexistent. But the odds of emerging with a serious public platform, if you do it well? Maybe a book deal or even a cable show? Those are odds I would take.

It’s worth noting, though, that if Sununu or Hutchinson plan to audition for the role of lonely Republican statesman, they might have to reckon with some competition. Liz Cheney, a former congresswoman who was banished by her party after voting for Trump’s impeachment, hasn’t ruled out an independent bid herself, and I wouldn’t dismiss her chances.

In the perennial primary to become the conservative icon of NPR listeners and humanities professors everywhere, she’s off to a commanding lead.