It’s Trump vs. Pence in the Georgia gubernatorial primary on Tuesday — sort of — after Pence made the intriguing decision to come in late for a candidate Trump hates: Gov. Brian Kemp (R).
It now looks like it’ll pan out quite nicely. Kemp led former senator David Perdue (R-Ga.) 60 percent to 32 percent in a recent Fox News poll, further cementing him as the odds-on favorite. His win wouldn’t necessarily affirm Pence’s political stock — Kemp was already showing double-digit leads — but it would be a nice boost for Pence and his presidential aspirations.
And it’s merely the latest example of Pence carving out some calculated distance from former president Donald Trump. And he’s navigated the potential pitfalls relatively well: Though Trump has criticized the former vice president for not helping him overturn the 2020 election, it hasn’t amounted to the kind of sustained campaign he often launches against his apostates.
Pence has criticized as “un-American” Trump’s plot to have him unilaterally overturn the election — an issue on which, it turns out, Republicans side with Pence. He also went after his party’s “apologists” for Russian President Vladimir Putin after Trump praised Putin’s supposed strategic genius. And now he offers a high-profile endorsement in opposition to Trump.
What happens if a narrative takes hold after May 24 that Pence beat Trump in a proxy battle (however over-simplified)? Trump’s reaction would say plenty about his 2024 intentions and Pence’s gamble.
For these reasons, we’re at least momentarily nudging Pence up our early list of the most likely 2024 GOP presidential nominees. As usual, this list takes into account both how likely they are to run in the first place and how likely they are to win.
Also mentioned: Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem, Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.), Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.), former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
10. Asa Hutchinson: The question has long been whether the GOP would ever nominate a Trump critic — even a gentle one — in 2024. The answer is probably still “no,” but the Arkansas governor has staked out an interesting path. He’s criticized his party for being too heavy-handed in legislating issues like transgender rights and punishing so-called “woke” corporations. And on the latter, he called out Trump’s likeliest heir apparent, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). Hutchinson has also leaned into the possibility of a campaign, saying recently that it’s “on the table” when he’s out of office after 2022 — and that Trump running won’t necessarily dissuade him. (Previous ranking: N/A)
9. Chris Sununu: The New Hampshire governor is one of only a handful of big-name Republicans in the country who support abortion rights, and now has to walk a tightrope. After the news of the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion broke, he emphasized he would keep abortion “safe and legal” in New Hampshire. But last week, he also claimed to have “done more on the pro-life issue” than any other recent New Hampshire governor, because he signed a ban on abortion after 24 weeks. Navigating both his Trump criticisms and his views on abortion is asking a lot in today’s GOP. (Previous ranking: 9)
8. Glenn Youngkin: The Virginia governor has recently confronted one of his first big sources of tension with the GOP base — his cautious response to requests to crack down on protests at Supreme Court justices’ homes in his state. Virginia state law also apparently makes such protests illegal, but rather than seek state action, Youngkin ultimately joined Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in calling on the Justice Department to act instead. (Previous ranking: 8)
7. Donald Trump Jr.: In case you had any doubt about what kind of campaign Trump Jr. would run, he recently criticized Congress for sending money to the “clown show” in Ukraine and suggested it was a good idea to bomb Mexican cartels. Whenever Trump Jr. is polled in a race without his father, he does remarkably well for a political novice. But he also seems pretty content to be a bomb-thrower hurling provocations from the sidelines. (Previous ranking: 5)
6. Ted Cruz: Speaking of Republicans who have endorsed against Trump’s preferred candidate, the Texas senator stumped for Dave McCormick over Trump’s choice of Mehmet Oz just ahead of Pennsylvania’s primary. Cruz argued that McCormick was the most conservative candidate who could win the Senate seat. McCormick’s race against Oz now appears set for a recount, with Oz having the slightest of edges. (Previous ranking: 7)
5. Tim Scott: Former Trump White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney recently listed the South Carolina senator among the three candidates who could beat Trump in a primary, alongside DeSantis and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. (We can’t laugh off these things as easily as we once did, but it seems unlikely Johnson would run as a Republican.) Scott also recently took aim at Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen’s comments on the economic impacts of banning abortion. (Previous ranking: 6)
4. Nikki Haley: Haley is perhaps the biggest boom-or-bust candidate on this list. She has shown real political talent, but she also tops the ranks of Republicans who severely misplayed their hands (or, more likely, said what she actually thought) after Jan. 6, 2021. She offered a string of contradictory thoughts on where the party should go on Trump. In that, she is not unlike House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), for one, but Haley committed more to the idea of a post-Trump party than McCarthy ever did — and more publicly — only to pull back when it became clear that wasn’t good politics. (Previous ranking: 3)
3. Mike Pence: Given how sharply his numbers within the GOP dropped after Jan. 6, it’s difficult to see him as a front-runner for the GOP nomination. But they didn’t fall completely off a cliff. And again, he seems to be navigating a tricky situation relatively well, given the circumstances — crafting his own brand and gently criticizing Trump without the blowback. We’ll see if that holds next week. (Previous ranking: 4)
2. Ron DeSantis: We’re increasingly of the opinion that he could truly give Trump a run for his money if they ran against one another — as DeSantis has conspicuously declined to rule out. Most polls show his deficit would start in the teens or the 20s, with Trump below majority support. That’s a big lead for Trump, but hardly impenetrable over the next two years. Indeed, one would expect someone with Trump’s stature to have such a lead at a moment when so few people are paying attention and probably don’t know much about DeSantis. (Previous ranking: 2)
1. Donald Trump: The really, really big question is whether Trump runs. We can all over-analyze the tea leaves on that, but it’s somewhat gobsmacking that Trump hasn’t made more of that fact that his nominees to the Supreme Court seem on the verge of overturning Roe v. Wade. Also worth watching in the coming few weeks is how Trump’s candidates fare in a series of competitive primaries, after a few high-profile losses and likely another one in Georgia. Whatever happens will send a message to his would-be usurpers — and potentially to Trump himself, about whether he wants to even risk having the party balk at his running. (Previous ranking: 1)