Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley.
Adam Wollner, Tribune News Service
Just six months after the last presidential election, ambitious Republicans are already busy laying the groundwork for the next one, visiting key states and hitting the fundraising circuit.
It could all be for nothing if former President Donald Trump decides to run again.
Without him in the picture, Republicans expect a free-for-all 2024 primary race that will draw candidates from across the country, ranging from senators to governors to former Trump administration officials.
But Trump, who has maintained a firm grip on the GOP base since leaving office, could ruin other Republican presidential aspirants’ carefully laid plans in an instant, likely leaving them with a much narrower path forward if he chooses to launch another White House campaign.
“You have to assume he’s not going to run again. And if he does, you reassess at that time,” said Alex Conant, a GOP consultant who worked on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “Lay the groundwork now, but if he does run, your plans will likely be delayed for four years.”
It’s a unique scenario for the GOP. Defeated presidents and party nominees usually fade into the background after an election, clearing the way for the next wave of leaders. But Trump has stayed in the mix, setting up his own political operation and saying that he will decide whether to run for president again after the 2022 midterm elections.
In an interview with the conservative media outlet Daily Wire on Tuesday, Trump said his supporters would be “very, very happy” when he eventually makes his announcement.
In the meantime, his fellow Republican hopefuls are moving ahead. Party operatives and officials in the three states that kick off the nomination process — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — say they are seeing an early uptick in visits from national Republican figures who don’t want to be caught flat-footed if Trump decides against running. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee; and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who delivered the official GOP response to President Joe Biden’s congressional address last week, have all visited Iowa this year. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton are both scheduled to travel to the first caucus state in June.
Cotton and Pompeo have also recently spoken to virtual gatherings of Republicans in New Hampshire. And former Vice President Mike Pence, after delivering a speech last week in South Carolina, announced plans to travel to New Hampshire next month.
“I think you have to just proceed as you would normally in an open field of Republicans and not let Donald Trump’s presence or decision really impact what you’re doing,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director for the Iowa Republican Party. “There’s no downside to doing it now. This is like a free window to dip your toes in the water a little bit and see what’s out there.”
Operatives in the three early voting states said GOP activists are also keeping their eye on other potential contenders who have yet to visit. That includes Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who have earned plaudits from conservatives due to their handling of the coronavirus pandemic in their states and frequent appearances on Fox News.
Jim Merrill, a veteran New Hampshire-based GOP operative, said Trump would be the “runaway favourite” to win the 2024 nomination, otherwise there is an opening for contenders across the party’s ideological spectrum. “I don’t think there’s any heir apparent,” Merrill said.
“It’s early, but the battle lines are drawn across whether Trump runs or not,” said former South Carolina Republican Party chair Matt Moore. “I don’t see any sort of A-level candidate running against Trump.”
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