LAS VEGAS — Open defiance of Donald Trump, a surefire form of political suicide for Republican politicians for much of the past six years, has suddenly become a reliable applause line.
Others were less directly critical but no less audacious in suggesting their ambitions to challenge Trump for the 2024 Republican nomination. Former members of Trump’s administration positioned themselves as heirs to his agenda, with one of them — former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley — declaring serious interest in a 2024 bid despite once ruling out a clash with Trump. And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis got a rock star’s reception as he touted his landslide reelection and took up the issues that fire up Trump’s base while never mentioning the former president.
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Their pitches at the RJC event — an unofficial kickoff of the presidential primary season — made clear that Republicans are not running scared of Trump and are even eager for the contest, as disappointing midterm results have set off a cascade of hand-wringing and finger-pointing in the party.
They also showed a range of theories on how to run against Trump in 2024, underscoring an increasingly public debate in the GOP about how Trump can be beat. Republicans are divided about the wisdom of attacking Trump directly, even as they take up similar messages about electability. Potential candidates and donors are already discussing the importance of coalescing around one person to prevent a repeat of 2016, when Trump prevailed in a crowded field.
Sununu said in an interview that as governor of a first-in-the-nation primary state, he plans to take responsibility for urging stragglers to drop out.
“People want to move on, there’s no doubt about that,” said Sununu, who is not ruling out a run of his own and said of Trump: “He’ll have to fight for it like everybody else.”
Some potential Republican candidates — including former vice president Mike Pence and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — have criticized the announcement last week of a special counsel for criminal investigations into Trump’s conduct. But Republicans have not rallied around Trump nearly as vociferously as they did in August, when the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago while probing the former president’s handling of classified documents.
“I don’t think he will be uncontested,” Cruz said this weekend, shortly after opening his speech in Las Vegas with a question: “How do we win?”
At a private dinner Thursday for RJC donors and VIPs, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said Republicans needed to avoid factionalism and unify like family, according to several people present. Speaking after McDaniel, Christie picked up on the metaphor — and said the family needed to hash things out.
“We have to have this discussion out in the open,” Christie said Saturday in his public remarks, going on to criticize Trump’s long, singular grip on the party. “We have to have this family argument. And we need to have it now.”
Others stuck to implicit contrasts — and cast themselves as effective fighters on issues that Trump has elevated. DeSantis, a onetime Trump ally who served as the RJC’s grand finale speaker on Saturday night, got some of his biggest applause when he noted changes to Florida election laws, part of a wave of Republican-led policies amid Trump’s false claims that he lost the 2020 election due to widespread fraud.
Audience members stood to film with cellphones. Crowding around the stage, students reached up to shake DeSantis’s hand.
“I really don’t see the establishment wing of the Republican Party coming back,” said Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary in the George W. Bush administration. “Not in this cycle. I do see a legitimate fair fight that can take place over this populist outsider element that is now the new dynamic of the Republican conservative movement.”
Fleischer predicted that only a “courageous few” will ultimately run against Trump. And while he expected some “more liberal Republicans” to run — he declined to specify whom he meant — he flatly said they don’t stand a chance.
A growing push to displace Trump was clear last week at another GOP gathering — a meeting of the Republican Governors Association in Florida. GOP donor Bobbie Kilberg recalled standing up in one session to call the former president a “clear and present danger to the future of the Republican Party.” Christie got a standing ovation for similarly sharp criticism, she said.
Hogan, whose speech in Las Vegas emphasized his ability to win in decidedly blue Maryland, said governors paid little attention to Trump’s presidential announcement, which unfolded as they met. “I came back to the hotel room later after these events and couldn’t hardly even find it on the television, switching channels,” he said in an interview.
The doubts extend even to supporters of Trump’s false insistence that the 2020 election was stolen. Lew Sanders, a local GOP official in Arizona who echoes Trump’s election claims, said he would back DeSantis in 2024 “without question” — and has heard from many Republicans concerned that Trump hurt their chances in the midterms. “I’ve heard it so many times it makes me want to throw up,” he said.
Andy Sabin — who donated to Trump’s 2020 reelection bid and said he put some $1 million into Republicans’ midterm efforts this year — blasted Trump’s endorsement choices in an interview. He said he will support “anybody but Trump” for the presidential nomination in 2024, echoing other major donors who have soured on the 45th president.
Trump came close to blowing off an appearance at the RJC’s three-day gathering but was added to the program late last week after announcing his third bid for the White House. A Trump meeting with top supporters of the RJC was previously discussed but never materialized, according to a person familiar with the planning, who cited scheduling difficulties. A Trump spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Trump focused his remarks Saturday on restoring policies of his administration that Biden reversed, saying at one point, “The future in some ways is going back a little bit to the past.”
The virtual speech led to an unusually stiff performance from Trump, who stood in front of flags at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida and repeatedly glanced to the side, unable to read the room. Trump repeatedly returned to his false claims of fraud in the 2020 election — a refrain that was conspicuously absent from his announcement speech on Tuesday and that Republicans have increasingly denounced as harmful to the party.
Still, Trump received a standing ovation for mentions of his administration’s policies involving Israel, particularly moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, and brokering a diplomatic agreement between Israel and other countries, including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Trump also admonished some American Jews for not appreciating Israel, echoing his October social media post that the White House condemned as antisemitic. At the RJC meeting, he got applause.
Trump advisers have brushed off his potential rivals as runners-up and has-beens who languish in early polls. A crowded field could work to his advantage by splitting the opposition, as in 2016.
But six years ago, none of the other candidates wanted to challenge Trump directly, which clearly isn’t true this time. Even Trump’s closest allies at the RJC conference did not rush to his defense. Rep.-elect Max Miller, a former White House aide who won an Ohio congressional seat with Trump’s help and immediately endorsed Trump for president, praised “the greatest president in our lifetime” in a speech Saturday but focused on criticizing the Biden administration.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who mounted a Trump-supported challenge to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell last week that lost 37-10, declined to say whether Trump should campaign in Georgia for Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker in next month’s runoff.
Haley, the former United Nations ambassador under Trump, pushed back on blaming “one person” or bad candidates for midterm disappointments, instead faulting Republican infighting and deficits in fundraising and early voting. “We have to look in the mirror,” she said in a speech on Saturday. “We’re behind the times.”
She said she would have “more to say soon” about a potential 2024 bid — and has infrastructure for a presidential campaign ready to go whenever she makes her decision, according to a person familiar with the planning.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) sidestepped the hand-wringing over Trump altogether, using his appearance in Las Vegas to introduce his life story in a rousing sermon-style address that had the audience responding with cheers, whistles and even a “Hallelujah.”
The 2022 Midterm Elections
Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.
What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.