Just as Donald Trump began to look vulnerable in a potential GOP presidential primary, the FBI executed a search warrant for classified documents he had kept at his Mar-a-Lago home after leaving the White House.
In a normal political world, such a development might disqualify Trump or at least hamstring him as he prepares to run for president again in 2024. In the bizarro political world in which we now find ourselves, however, it had the opposite effect among his base – turning Trump, again, into a martyr, the subject of an overreaching government dead set on targeting him no matter the cost.
The practical, political effects of the FBI’s search – putting aside the legal implications for Trump – are twofold:
1) There is a rallying effect among Republicans around Trump.
2) Talk of him announcing his candidacy before the November midterm elections has faded.
That does not mean that Trump would skate through the primary without competition. It’s hard to see – given the number of White House hopefuls out there and the level of their activity in key states – Trump not facing at least nominal competition for the Republican nod.
What it does mean, however, is that Trump is in a stronger political position today than he was three months ago. (Yes, I know, it’s weird.)
Below are the 10 people most likely to wind up as the Republican nominee for president in 2024. (My last rankings of the GOP field from June are here. And my latest 2024 Democratic presidential rankings are here.) A word of caution: it’s still very early so this list can and will change.
10. Rick Scott: The Florida senator is in the midst of a cold war with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell over the best way to execute the fall campaign. But Scott, the chair of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, doesn’t seem particularly interested in trying to take McConnell’s job (and he wouldn’t be able to anyway). Scott’s eye is on a bigger prize – as evidenced by his recent trip to Iowa to campaign with a House candidate. (Previous ranking: 9)
9. Greg Abbott: Abbott has a comfortable, if not massive, edge over Democrat Beto O’Rourke in his bid for a second term as Texas governor. And he’s drawn a lot of national attention for busing migrants to New York and Washington, DC. Abbott has demonstrated an ability to raise the sort of money he would need to run for president, too. (Previous ranking: 7)
8. Mike Pompeo: No one on this list has been more overt about their interest in running for president than Pompeo. The former secretary of state recently visited New Hampshire, simply the latest in a series of trips to states expected to kick off the primary season. If Trump doesn’t run, expect Pompeo to position himself as an inheritor of the muscular foreign policy that the former President sought to make his legacy. (Previous ranking: Not ranked)
7. Nikki Haley: During a trip to Iowa this summer, the former UN ambassador and South Carolina governor leaned as far into a possible candidacy as she ever has. “If it looks like there’s a place for me next year, I’ve never lost a race,” she said. Haley had previously suggested she wouldn’t run if Trump did, but political promises are made to be broken. Haley is charismatic and experienced on the campaign trail. It remains to be seen how she would differentiate herself in a race against Trump, though. (Previous ranking: 6)
6. Ted Cruz: The Texas senator is set to go on a massive campaign trip for the midterm elections that will take him through three states – Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada – that will play a critical role in picking the next Republican presidential nominee. Cruz, who finished second to Trump in the 2016 primary, is smart enough to know that the race is effectively frozen until Trump makes up his mind, but is putting in the work now so that if Trump bows out (unlikely, but possible) he would be in a position to take advantage. (Previous ranking: 5)
5. Mike Pence: Look, I get that he is the former vice president of the United States. And that as a result, Pence has name recognition and a donor network that is the envy of almost everyone on this list. At the same time, he is persona non grata with the unquestioned leader of the Republican Party. Even if Trump doesn’t run in 2024, can you imagine a scenario where he leaves Pence alone during a GOP primary campaign? I sure can’t. (Previous ranking: 3)
4. Glenn Youngkin: There’s a tendency to be skeptical of Youngkin because he is only now in his first year as the governor of Virginia. But as Barack Obama should have taught all of us, inexperience in national politics isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Youngkin is a very hot commodity in Republican politics these days; he’ll campaign for gubernatorial candidates in across the country in the coming weeks. Politics is all about timing and momentum – and right now, Youngkin has both on his side. (Previous ranking: 5)
3. Tim Scott: On the one hand, the South Carolina senator publicly downplays his presidential aspirations. On the other, he spent a day in late August stumping for a House candidate in Iowa. (Scott has been to the state at least five times in the last three years.) So … The reality is that if Trump doesn’t run, it’s hard to see how Scott stays out of the 2024 race. And he would immediately be one of the contest’s front-runners – he is the only Black Republican in the Senate and has demonstrated an ability to raise money. (Previous ranking: 4)
2. Ron DeSantis: There’s no question that the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago took some wind from the sails of DeSantis’ presidential ambitions. But there’s also no question that the Florida governor is the only contender on this list who poses a direct threat to Trump in a presidential primary. DeSantis continues to show his knack for attracting national headlines – his stunt of flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard being the latest example – and, in so doing, rallying Trumpian conservatives to his cause. If Trump, as expected, enters the race, DeSantis will have a very tough choice to make. (Previous ranking: 2)
1. Donald Trump: Yes, the former President is, without question, the favorite to win the Republican nomination for a third time. But it’s worth noting that he’s not as big a favorite as, say, Hillary Clinton was at this point for the Democratic nomination in the 2016 election cycle. (Clinton won the nomination, but the race against Bernie Sanders was far closer than early polling indicated.) Which is to say that the GOP nomination is Trump’s for the taking, but it is not a foregone conclusion that he wins it. Polling of late has picked up a sizable chunk of Republicans who are ready to look elsewhere for the next leader of their party. (Previous ranking: 1)