The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republican 2024 contenders are doing it all wrong

Yard signs promoting a presidential run by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis line a street on May 13 in Sioux Center, Iowa. (Tom Beaumont/AP)
4 min

If the Republican presidential aspirants seem underwhelming to you, you’re not alone. Poll after poll shows Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who officially announced his candidacy on Wednesday, sinking like a stone among primary voters. The pack of other contenders, from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley to Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) to former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, barely registers with Republican primary voters.

It’s not as if Republican primary voters are unwilling — in theory — to look at choices other than Trump. Focus group maven Sarah Longwell explained that there have been moments in which Republicans have appeared ready to move on, if only because they understand on some level that Trump would likely lose in the general election.

But to say the alternatives are not wowing Republican voters would be a gross understatement. Before even entering the race, DeSantis got slammed for his lack of personal skills and a foreign policy flub on Ukraine. His lack of a captivating personality turns out to be a real detriment, as many of his critics predicted. The other 2024 contenders are so unimpressive that it seems they are really vying for the vice-presidential slot (which might explain their aversion to bashing Trump).

In addition to declaring that nominating a candidate indicted multiple times (which Trump likely will be by primary season) is politically nutters, the non-Trump, non-DeSantis candidates should consider introducing other big ideas.

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First and foremost, they need to get off the trans-bashing and return to a message that is a proven winner: Parents and students were ill-served during the pandemic and are still getting ignored. That pitch worked like gangbusters for Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R).

As the moderate Democratic think tank Third Way documented after Youngkin’s victory, Biden/Youngkin voters “were more animated talking about their dissatisfaction with their local school districts’ handling of covid. They felt buffeted by changing and inconsistent policies and concerned about the impact on student learning loss, and there was a sense among some that Virginia was not following the science by keeping schools closed later than other states.”

A focus on the damage to families wrought by the coronavirus is at least tethered to reality. Distance learning was a flop, schools could have reopened sooner, and we have a real mental health catastrophe. It’s also warm and fuzzy (who doesn’t like parents?) without being mean-spirited (as demonizing LGBTQ kids is).

So far, this pitch does not have much content. Republicans really have no plan to help students catch up. But vapid slogans and channeling voters’ irritation with bureaucrats have gotten many a politician elected.

Another opportunity for GOP contenders: No one has seized the “outsider” mantle, labeling the rest of the field (including Trump) as ineffective and incompetent insiders, establishment figures who don’t care about GOP voters. That, after all, got Trump the nomination and presidency in 2016. Republicans still think there is a “swamp,” still dislike the federal government and still think they are victims of elite meddling.

Former or current governors already in the race or contemplating getting in would be wise to play that card. The theme has the benefit of distancing the candidates from the loony, hysterical GOP House caucus that hasn’t delivered on the investigations they promised the base. In the general election, an outsider pitch might appeal to independent voters’ desire to stop the hollering and political venom.

If candidates go down this outsider road, a realistic anti-corruption package that goes after members of Congress’s individual stock ownership, conflicts of interest in the executive branch and foreign enrichment by members of an administration might be useful. (You probably recognize many of these might be relevant to Trump and his family.)

A vigorous attack on Trump’s electability, a pro-parent pitch and a “drain the swamp” message might help voters see a viable alternative to Trump, someone who actually could compete in a general election. However, any person who lacks the venom, conspiracy-fixation and racism Trump exhibits might not be enough to satisfy a Republican primary base deep in the echo chamber of right-wing media. Voters enthralled with turning politics into primal scream therapy don’t much care about a viable agenda or electability.

Bottom line: The first step in recovery is recognizing you have a problem. If Republican primary voters are unwilling to do that and would rather lose than become a rational party again, then nothing the non-Trump, non-DeSantis candidates do will make much difference. If, however, they want a viable general election candidate, they’d be wise to search for someone who distinguishes themself from the crowd.