For years, it was almost unthinkable for any Republican to criticize Donald Trump without being ostracized. After all, he had brought the party back to power from deep in the political wilderness, changing politics in a way not thought possible with a relentless challenge to the establishment’s sacred cows. But as the songwriter said, the times they are a-changin’.
With gridlock a virtual certainty in our freshly divided government, the consequent news vacuum is already being filled with speculation about 2024. Sure, we have not even hit 2023 yet, but as Yogi Berra once said, as no one else could, it gets late early around here. And the speculation has not been beneficial to the former president. This is partly because of Trump himself, and partly because an appealing and durable alternative has arisen in the person of Ron DeSantis. When Elon Musk endorsed the Florida Governor earlier in the year, one got the sense that a pivot away from Trump had begun – if only because it was once widely believed that if Trump was to run again, no Republican would dare challenge him.
But now, it appears that many challengers are lining up. It may well be that once DeSantis’ landslide victory thrust the Florida Governor directly into the presidential spotlight, the permission concept was activated, and others will now feel free to jump into the fray. And while the field of candidates will almost certainly not reach as high as the 16 who competed for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, potentially attractive Republican candidates are not in short supply.
DeSantis and Diversity
Given both his America First agenda and his rise from an extremely narrow victory in 2018 to an almost 20-point landslide and utter domination of the Sunshine State government in 2022, DeSantis has clearly risen to the top of the heap of Trump alternatives. Perhaps he will play rope-a-dope, granting Trump the stage early, and entering later once he believes Trump has punched himself out. But whether he runs or not – he is only 44 years old with a long life ahead – DeSantis is hardly the only Republican with presidential ambitions. And the other candidates reported to be seriously considering a run at the White House offer an appeal to various strains of conservatism.
While DeSantis presents as a true MAGA acolyte, a more refined brand of America First can be found in Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, the Republican star of 2021 – much as DeSantis has been in 2022. For those preferring a candidate who might be able to blunt the issue of race and continue the trend of black voters moving off the Democrat brand, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) is stronger than ever after a landslide re-election this month. For buttoned-down conservatives who prefer tightly disciplined politicians – and some who admire his refusal to participate in the 2020 post-election ugliness – former Vice President Mike Pence might be the ticket. For a less populist, more traditional form of firebrand conservatism, there is the familiar Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). For those with a particular interest in national security and foreign policy – and a touch of MAGA – ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will likely fill the bill. And for those looking for someone with both domestic and international credentials, there is former South Carolina Governor and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.
And then there are those who want to steer the party completely away from Trump and are not afraid to say so. Count among them Governors Larry Hogan of Maryland and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, and the woman who has forged her identity as the premier Never-Trump Republican, the one who was willing to be martyred in her primary for the sake of her anti-Trump crusade: Liz Cheney. Yes, the former Wyoming Congresswoman is, by most accounts, weighing a candidacy strictly as a platform to talk voters out of supporting Trump.
Why are so many candidates lining up for something they would not touch just weeks or months ago? There are a few underlying reasons: Trump’s continuing re-litigation of the 2020 election, his multiple legal entanglements, the damaging losses piled up among his midterm endorsees, and his indiscreet, even threatening remarks designed to devalue the most popular figures in the GOP. He called Ron DeSantis “DeSanctimonious” after his landslide re-election as Governor of Florida, and said he would uncover “things about [DeSantis] that won’t be very flattering – I know more about him than anybody – other than, perhaps, his wife … I think if he runs, he could hurt himself very badly.” Trump also strangely remarked that Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has a name that “sounds Chinese.”
So we have now come full circle in the Republican response to Donald Trump’s grandiose entrance into the center ring of the national political circus. First, he was mocked, his candidacy for president written off as a mere publicity stunt designed to place himself in the national spotlight. Then he became a threat to the established order and shockingly rose to become the towering figure who would remake the party in his own image. He became a president unlike any other, largely immune from, and intolerant of, internal criticism – unless you were a Never-Trumper. But now, some believe the worm is turning. You can tell by, among other things, the statements of professional politicians like Chris Christie and Paul Ryan, both of whom were once anti-Trump, then pro-Trump, and now, with the coast clear to flip-flop again, they are back to speaking out against the former president.
Donald Trump may yet capture his third consecutive GOP presidential nomination. But in a party already riven by growing internal division over both Trump and the disappointing midterm elections, many are now looking for alternatives to the 45th president in 2024. And it is looking ever more likely that they will have many from which to choose.
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