Trump's GOP rivals struggle to break through as former president cements frontrunner status
The question put to South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, hours after he announced plans to run for the Republican presidential nomination, was a simple one: How do you plan to defeat Donald Trump?
Scott spoke for nearly a minute, discussing his mother, his belief in the power of prayer and his “faith in God and faith in our future.” When Fox and Friends co-host Steve Doocy lightly pressed for a more direct answer, Scott shook him off again.
“As opposed to trying to have a conversation about how to beat a Republican,” he said, “I think we’re better off having a conversation about beating Joe Biden.”
Scott, like his fellow GOP presidential contenders, is itching to take on the Democratic president, who is now poised to officially launch his reelection bid. But their first challenge will be getting through the Republican primary – and unseating Trump as the party’s standard bearer.
Even with Trump facing a historic indictment and ongoing questions about his perpetuation of election lies, his challengers are still deeply reluctant to take on the former president, who sits atop almost every poll of the field despite numerous legal issues and the widespread rejection of his chosen candidates in the 2022 midterms. Whether it’s a fear of alienating his core supporters or taking a social media drubbing, this new class of candidates – some officially in, others plotting their entry – has been careful in their remarks about Trump, largely steering clear of sharp criticism in favor of the occasional implicit jab, the kind that often fails to register with the average voter, or subtle indications of opposing policy views.
“It’d be virtually impossible for somebody to break through in a constructive way at this stage,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist and veteran of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. Conant said most 2024 primary voters have not yet tuned in and Trump is soaking up the relatively scant media attention on the race.
Trump’s lesser-known rivals, he added, need to use the coming months to introduce themselves to voters and make favorable first impressions before they risk alienating Republican voters by taking on the still-popular former president.
“To beat Trump, you have to either be a really good counter-puncher, or successfully ride the bubble. And neither of those things are easy,” Conant said. “Nobody has ever proven to be a good counter-puncher to Trump, and Biden’s the only one who’s ever really rode the bubble.”
Unlike in 2015 and 2016, when he was a political unknown, Trump now has a lengthy track record in office for opponents to exploit: His four years as president; his failed efforts to challenge the outcome of the 2020 election; his supporters’ attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021; and mounting legal troubles, including his indictment in New York City over a hush money scheme and other looming challenges.
Still, there has been almost no attempt to use his record against him, whether by invoking the Republican Congressional majorities lost on his watch, his defeat in 2020, or the election denial movement that sparked a deadly riot at the Capitol and a crop of unelectable, extremist candidates in 2022.
Leading Republicans have almost unanimously surmised that there is no avenue for parlaying those events against Trump in a primary campaign.
“It’s shaping up to be 2016 all over again,” said Jason Roe, a Michigan Republican strategist and former executive director of the state GOP. Trump has “been able to suck up all the oxygen, and he’s doing it sooner in the cycle than he did eight years ago. It also looks a lot like ’16 with the number of candidates that are making noise about running.”
In the early stages of the campaign, Trump’s rivals have mostly tried to execute bespoke campaign strategies under the former president’s exceptionally sensitive radar.
Roe said it might be wise for expected 2024 candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to wait to enter the race, ideally limiting their exposure and hoping Trump “racks up a few more problems and starts to look like a liability.”
Trump’s seemingly inevitable cratering, though, was what his 2016 rivals waited for – and it never came.
Now a former president, Trump might be facing different challenges this time around, but his appeal remains unique. Few candidates see their fundraising totals spike after being indicted, as he did this month. And with no example of a rival who benefited from launching a full frontal attack on him, this year’s rivals are reluctant to leave their trenches.
Another Republican strategist, who worked for a rival campaign in 2016 and has spoken with others this year, agreed that candidates were wise to delay their confrontations with Trump but warned against relying on outdated practices when the time came.
“A candidate has to understand that that is what it’s like running against Donald Trump,” the strategist told CNN. “The age of having carefully controlled media appearances and a moderate approach to content creation – that is not going to work against Trump, who, whether he wants to make news or somebody else wants to make news about him, it happens every single day. It happens constantly. And the only way to occupy attention in a voter’s mind is to fight him for that space.”
DeSantis, considered Trump’s top competition, has been at the front of the line among high profile Republicans in trying to win over conservatives angered by progressive-minded cultural and business trends. He routinely slams DEI – or “diversity, equity and inclusion” – programs at colleges and in corporations in his bid to appeal to GOP right-wingers who previously backed Trump.
DeSantis also needled the former president shortly before Trump’s indictment by a New York City prosecutor over hush money payments to a porn actress, telling reporters in Florida, “I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair – I just, I can’t speak to that.”
But DeSantis, like so many others either in or considering a primary run, effectively defended Trump by attacking the Democratic prosecutor and echoed Trump in casting the case as a witch hunt.
“The weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda turns the rule of law on its head. It is un-American,” DeSantis tweeted.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, another potential primary candidate, has gone further than most in condemning Trump’s actions before and during the January 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol. At an event last month in Washington, Pence – whose life was threatened by violent Trump supporters after he refused not to certify the 2020 presidential election results – issued his most stark criticism of his former running mate to date.
“What happened (on January 6) was a disgrace, and it mocks decency to portray it in any other way,” Pence said. “President Trump was wrong.”
But Pence’s harsh words typically stop there. Just a few weeks after giving those remarks, he was among those defending Trump over his indictment. Describing the decision as “an outrage,” Pence argued that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg was politically motivated.
After CNN’s Wolf Blitzer pointed out that a grand jury voted to charge Trump, Pence doubled down.
“When you have an attorney general in New York, a Manhattan DA, that targeted one particular American in their campaigns, I think that offends the notion of the overwhelming majority of the American people who believe in fairness, who believe in equal treatment before the law,” Pence said.
David Kochel, a veteran Iowa Republican strategist, urged caution in assessing the 2024 race – and expressed some optimism that the past was not destined to repeat itself.
“I think it’ll be a much smaller field than 2016, and I also think that probably a few of the campaigns will get out earlier, because I think everybody is aware that the dynamic of 2016 is a losing dynamic when you’ve got somebody who’s famous with as fixed a base as Trump has,” he said.
Potential candidates like former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan recently ruled out runs, but the field is still expected to grow. Scott, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy are already in. DeSantis and Pence are nearly sure bets to join them and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie looks increasingly likely to try his luck. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu is also weighing his options.
DeSantis is widely considered the best bet among that group to outlast Trump in a one-on-one competition. But in a repeat of the traditions of 2016, that title has made him a target for attacks from others lower down the perceived pecking order. Christie, Sununu and Hutchinson have all rapped DeSantis over his feud with Disney, arguing that it undermines Republicans and the conservative message.
“I think that’s not a conservative position. I think he’s wrong and I think rightfully makes a lot of people question his judgment and his maturity,” said Christie, who famously roasted Rubio on the debate stage in 2016 before bowing out and endorsing Trump, in a recent interview with Semafor.
Trump joined the pile-on against DeSantis, saying on his social media website Truth Social that the Florida governor was being “absolutely destroyed” by Disney. DeSantis has been clashing with Disney since last year, when the state passed a new law that limited classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity and Disney objected to the bill.
“His original P.R. plan fizzled, so now he’s going back with a new one in order to save face,” Trump said on Truth Social. “Disney’s next move will be the announcement that no more money will be invested in Florida because of the Governor – In fact, they could even announce a slow withdrawal or sale of certain properties, or the whole thing. Watch! That would be a killer. In the meantime, this is all so unnecessary, a political STUNT! Ron should work on the squatter MESS!”
Establishment Republicans wary of Trump’s viability in a general election, if not his politics, have also revived another old, failed tactic in trying to keep the former president onside: the “loyalty pledge.” The subject protracted strife in 2016, and the party is now, as it did then, seeking to get promises from the primary candidates that they will support the eventual nominee, whoever it is.
Trump signed the oath in September 2015, after some back-and-forth, but disavowed it the next spring, as the 2016 contest entered its final stages.
At a CNN town hall that March, Anderson Cooper asked Trump whether he would stick by his pledge.
“No, I don’t anymore,” Trump said. “No, we’ll see who it is.”
Flash forward to 2023, and a similar dynamic appears to be unfolding. In February, Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel told CNN’s Dana Bash she thought using a signed loyalty pledge as the price of admission to the debate stage was a “no-brainer.”
In response, a Trump campaign spokesperson told CNN, “President Trump will support the Republican nominee because it will be him.”
Weeks earlier, Trump demurred when asked if he’d consider backing anyone but himself for president, telling conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, “It would have to depend on who the nominee was.”
Hutchinson, in an interview with Bash after McDaniel floated the pledge, questioned the idea, noting that it was clear for all to see that “the motivation (behind a pledge) is to keep Donald Trump, if he doesn’t win the primary, from running as a third party candidate.”
He then, perhaps inadvertently, spelled out why the 2024 version of the pledge would be doomed from the start.
“We did (have loyalty oaths) in 2016, they weren’t effective, they weren’t enforceable,” Hutchinson said. “You had candidates who participated in the debate who later didn’t support the nominee of the party.”
That nominee, of course, was Trump.