As each rumored 2024 candidate navigates the uncertainty of another Trump bid – deciding if they should publicly acknowledge their presidential ambitions or keep their head down until he makes a decision – their potential opponents are paying close attention to the degree of loyalty they show the former President.
Some likely 2024 contenders are creating campaigns-in-waiting — hiring trusted advisers, meeting with donors and visiting all-important primary states despite knowing it could all be for nothing if the former President enters the race. On Wednesday, for instance, former Vice President Mike Pence is set to travel to New Hampshire to mingle with GOP donors at a fundraiser for state Republicans and critique the Biden administration in a speech hosted by conservative activism group Heritage Action. Notably, Pence has not said he would refrain from challenging his former boss in the next presidential primary.
Other rumored Republican hopefuls who have made such declarations have drawn criticism from within the party.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has suggested GOP voters should immediately discount any rumored candidate who tethers their decision to Trump.
“If you’re saying you’re deferring to someone, that’s a real sign of both weakness and indecision,” he said in May.
A handful of would-be 2024 GOP contenders have already made such pledges or strongly hinted that they would not challenge Trump in a primary. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley declared so in the clearest terms back in April, telling reporters at the time that she “would not run if President Trump ran.” A Haley spokeswoman declined to comment for this story.
Meanwhile, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and a handful of Republican senators have intimated as much by saying they support the prospect of another Trump campaign or believe the GOP presidential nomination is his if he does run.
“If Donald Trump is going to run for president in 2024, he’ll be the Republican nominee. Of course, I would support him in that,” Sen. Marco Rubio told WPTV last week. On Friday, fellow Florida Sen. Rick Scott said in a Fox Business interview that Trump “ought to do it again.”
Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Tim Scott of South Carolina, two other senators who have been talked about as possible 2024 GOP contenders, have also expressed support of a future Trump bid.
And even as she traveled to Iowa in July – signaling her own interest in building relationships that could benefit her in 2024 – Noem told conservative activists at the Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines that she was “counting on [Trump] running.”
One aide to a prospective Republican candidate who has not publicly said he would defer to the former President told CNN that “unless there’s a dramatic shift in the base, the nomination is Donald Trump’s and it would be a suicide mission to run against him.” And yet, the aide continued, “We aren’t ever going to admit that. It turns off voters we might need down the road.”
Candidates who have shown deference to Trump – yielding to him before the GOP primary has even begun – are now being ribbed by his allies.
“You either are your own person or not and when you’re playing reflexive politics, it’s kind of hard to then go to the base and say you’re a fighter,” said former Trump campaign aide Bryan Lanza, who remains close to the ex-President.
“This is an era where we’re going to have to fight and scrap and the last thing we need if former President Trump doesn’t run is someone who bows out before the fight even starts,” Lanza added.
Keeping their cards close
In an entirely different category are prospective Republican candidates who have purposely refrained from discussing 2024 or stopped short of showing submissiveness to Trump when they have.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for instance, told CBS News’ Face the Nation last month that Trump “would be very, very formidable,” as a candidate in 2024, but simultaneously boasted that he “came incredibly close” to beating the former President in the 2016 GOP presidential primary and could be in a position to become the Republican Party’s nominee in 2024.
“I came in second. There’s a long history of runners-up being the next nominee,” Cruz said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been widely discussed among GOP donors as a possible 2024 candidate, has yet to rule out challenging Trump in a primary — much to the former President’s chagrin. As previously reported by CNN, Trump has recently complained to allies that the Florida governor has failed to pay him enough credit for his meteoric rise to Republican stardom and is especially annoyed that DeSantis won’t publicly reject a 2024 bid if the former president launches his own campaign.
But DeSantis isn’t the only rumored Republican hopeful to dodge the 2024 chatter. Two other Republicans who have been mentioned as possible candidates – Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton – have also refused to indulge speculation about their presidential ambitions or stake out a position on competing in a primary that includes Trump.
“We’ll see what happens. One thing you know about me, I take one step at a time,” Abbott told a local NBC affiliate last month when asked if he was considering a presidential run. An Abbott adviser told CNN that the Texas governor, who is running for reelection in 2022, would have serious catching up to do if he were to launch a White House bid given that Abbott has not been laying the groundwork or traveling to early primary states like other GOP presidential aspirants. The same adviser also acknowledged the virtual impossibility that any pro-Trump Republican would prove more competitive in a GOP primary against Trump than the former president himself.
“Of the 30 or so people who are out there thinking about this or dreaming about it, it’s an honest assessment to say that if you like the Trump brand of policies, it will be very difficult to break through with voters if he is also competing in the race,” the Abbott adviser said.
Cotton, meanwhile, has repeatedly rebuffed questions about his 2024 ambitions, despite making multiple trips to Iowa and New Hampshire this year. So far, he has also refused to comment on Trump’s constant teasing of another presidential run – declining to go as far as other GOP senators who have said the nomination is his if he wants it or suggesting they would forgo campaigns of their own if he jumps in. Cotton spokeswoman Caroline Tabler declined to comment for this story.
Trump isn’t a factor for everyone
Only six Republicans among the dozens who have drawn 2024 speculation have plainly stated that Trump will not be a factor in their decision as they weigh presidential bids of their own. While two of the names in this group – Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan – would likely enter the race as Never Trump candidates, meaning their decision to run against the former President would be easier than that of Republicans who wish to remain in his good graces, the other four face a tougher decision. Still, none of them have said that Trump’s next move would determine how they approach the 2024 presidential primary.
Cheney has said she is willing to do “whatever it takes” to prevent Trump from making it to the Oval Office again, presumably indicating that she would take him on in a Republican primary, while Hogan told Politico in September that a Trump candidacy “certainly wouldn’t stop me” if he decides to run for president.
Similarly, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who supported Trump in 2020 but has been critical of the former President’s election fraud claims over the past year, told reporters at the Republican Governors’ Association annual conference last month that he is open to running for president and will decide “based on what I can deliver, not based on what anyone else is thinking.”
Perhaps most surprising is the posture two longtime Trump loyalists have adopted. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who continues to compliment Trump in public speeches despite their falling out over his verification of the 2020 election results, has notably declined to say he won’t challenge his former boss in 2024. Pence aides are also quick to note that Trump will not be a factor in his decision.
“If you know the Pences, you know they’ll always try to discern where they’re being called to serve. And I don’t think that is dependent on who else is in or not in the race,” Pence aide and former chief of staff Marc Short told The Atlantic last week.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been taking the temperature of GOP donors on a 2024 bid and making the trek to Iowa and New Hampshire, has also declined to weigh in on running against Trump in a primary. In an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity earlier this year, Pompeo said he’s “always up for a good fight” when asked if he would run if Trump doesn’t. He did not clarify if that competitiveness would remain in a primary that includes Trump.
This story has been updated.