GOP hopefuls crank up the ‘if-Trump-doesn’t-run’ primary

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Mike Pompeo and Rick Scott are headed to Iowa this week and next, followed by Tim Scott in mid-April. Mike Pence plans to visit the early primary state of South Carolina, while Ron DeSantis appears to be conducting a soft launch in his home state of Florida.

Jeff Kaufmann, chair of the Iowa Republican Party, said he’s never seen so much interest so early in a presidential election cycle.

“Iowa’s going to be hopping,” Kaufmann said.

But what’s truly unique about the Republicans’ pre-presidential primary is the contingent framework that is unfolding around it. It’s a primary — but a wholly conditional one. Prospective 2024 candidates, donors and conservative media outlets — the entire Republican ecosystem — are building strategies and structuring the race around the single question of whether former President Donald Trump runs again.

It’s been nearly a half-century since either party had to navigate a primary in which a losing president loomed as a potential contestant.

“He’s got them in a box,” said Matt Moore, former chair of the South Carolina Republican Party.

Or as one prominent Republican operative in New Hampshire put it, “I would almost call it a shadow campaign. … It’s kind of operating in this silo as if he doesn’t run again.”

In a sign of Trump’s iron grip on the party, most credible contenders are really only competing in the race if he chooses not to run. But the shadow he casts from Mar-A-Lago is already shaping the design of the contest.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, organizers ran their annual straw poll twice — once assuming Trump runs again in 2024 (in which case he is far ahead of everyone else), and once assuming he doesn’t. And the effect of the former president doesn’t stop there. Depending on how long Trump holds out before announcing his intentions, it may complicate candidates’ efforts to hire staff. Already, it’s affecting polling, advertising and candidate messaging.

For Pompeo and other potential candidates now starting to network in the early nominating states, there is little choice but to prepare as though Trump isn’t running — and then watch it all evaporate if he does.

“If you do nothing and assume Trump’s going to run and he says, ‘I’m not going to run,’ then you’re scrambling,” said Wesley Enos, the former chair of the Republican Party in Iowa’s Polk County. “Now is your opportunity, realistically.”


In part, the uncertainty surrounding the primary is a function of how infrequently presidents lose second terms — and remain politically viable enough to run again. George H. W. Bush didn’t loom over the 1996 presidential primary after losing reelection in 1992. Jerry Ford, after losing the White House in 1976, considered running for a full term in 1980. But he didn’t have anywhere near the pull within the party that Trump has today.

For any other potential candidate going to early nominating states, said Stuart Spencer, the famed Republican strategist who advised Ford, “you might as well do it, because you never know what’s going to happen.”

But if Trump does run, Spencer said, the path for most Republican presidential candidates is plain: “You become a Trump-y. You endorse him.”

“Trump is Trump,” he lamented. “It’s Trump’s party.”

In Iowa this week, Pompeo will speak at a breakfast meeting of the Westside Conservative Club at the Machine Shed restaurant in Urbandale. He and Terry Branstad, the former governor and U.S. ambassador to China, will appear at a lunch that afternoon hosted by the Bull Moose Club of Des Moines, a group of conservatives under 40. Next week, Pompeo will appear by video conference in New Hampshire at a fundraiser for state House candidate Bill Boyd, in what is reported to be Pompeo’s first ever appearance before activists in the state.

On April 1, Rick Scott, the senator from Florida, will be in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for an event hosted by the state Republican Party. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott will be in Davenport on April 15. Later that month, Pence, the former vice president, will travel to South Carolina to give his first speech since leaving office. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who has already visited New Hampshire multiple times, told Republican activists there in January to expect to see him back in the state soon.

One Republican strategist in South Carolina said advisers to and associates of Pompeo, DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida have all placed calls into the state recently to discuss the landscape there.

Yet if the early state visits and conversations are relatively standard, there is one other destination for prospective candidates that is likely to be critical to Republicans seeking to burnish their MAGA credentials ahead of 2024: Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. Rick Scott, posting a photograph of himself with Trump there this month on Twitter, said he had a “great meeting” with the former president. On the other hand, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who was critical of Trump’s behavior following the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, sought to repair her relationship with Trump by requesting a sit-down with him there last month. She was rebuffed.

In a primary in which the former president is still outpacing every other potential contender, said Tony Fabrizio, who was a Trump pollster in 2020, the goal is not to be seen as preferable to Trump — but as the best alternative.

“As long as he holds sway, everybody’s going to be looking at, ‘How do I get his voters if he chooses not to run?’” Fabrizio said. “The No. 1 question — and if it’s not, they should fire whoever’s working for them right now — is how does my candidate get to be the second choice of Trump voters.”

In the modern era, the cycle of presidential maneuvering never really begins or ends. Rick Scott fired what one political consultant called “the starting gun for 2024” all the way back in January 2020, when he aired a TV ad in Iowa criticizing now-President Joe Biden and defending Trump. Cotton ran a pro-Trump spot in Ohio two months later targeting Biden over his policies toward China. And any number of speeches, events and candidate trips in the year-plus since have been variously heralded as the beginning of the 2024 primary campaign.

But Trump may be leaving the field in suspense for an extended period of time — long past when most presidential candidates move beyond networking to organization building, which may be harder with Trump’s intentions unclear. The former president told Fox News last week that he won’t decide if he’ll run for president again until after the midterm elections next year, which doesn’t leave much time for lesser known candidates to establish their brand and name identification within the party. And although that delay will not preclude early state visits from other potential candidates, it will limit their ability to hire staff if the uncertainty drags on.

“It’s a different story come mid-next year, and then they’re only 16 to 18 months from the primary,” Moore said. “Top-level operatives in early states will be hesitant as long as the former president is considering it.”

One Republican operative who has worked with multiple Republicans who are considering running said candidates may have to settle for provisional commitments from fundraisers to bundle money for them — with an understanding they will flip instead to Trump if he runs.

Outside money may be affected in similar ways. John Thomas, a Republican strategist based in California, said he and several other strategists he declined to name are in the process of forming a PAC to support DeSantis, with what he called “low seven-figure commitments right now.” But the group is telling donors it will shift its operation away from DeSantis — and to Trump — if Trump runs.

“We would enthusiastically … put those efforts behind President Trump,” Thomas said. He described the current state of the race as “the if-Trump-doesn’t-run primary.”

The answer, ultimately, may not simply be a matter of what Trump wants. Though still wildly popular among Republicans, Trump’s public approval ratings ticked down at the end of his term, and he has not been as forceful a presence in his immediate post-presidency as many Republicans had predicted. It is possible that he will fade.

“No one has the slightest idea what Donald Trump’s situation is going to be two years from now,” said Whit Ayres, the longtime Republican pollster. “Is he going to be fighting off another bankruptcy? Is he going to be fighting to stay out of jail? Or will he be King Kong of the Republican Party? No one has any clue right now.”

Trump is 74, and if his age does not become a factor, the midterm elections might. Wayne MacDonald, a New Hampshire lawmaker and former state Republican Party chair, said that “if the president crisscrosses the country and a fraction of his candidates win, that’s not going to be a positive sign. But if he campaigns heavily and most of his candidates win, that’s going to be huge for him.”

Steve Scheffler, an influential Republican National Committee member from Iowa and president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, said that because “24 hours in politics is a heck of a long time … even if Trump does run again, the dynamics in politics might be different.”

It’s “smart politics,” he said, for other potential candidates to begin laying groundwork now. “They don’t want to get a late start,” Scheffler said.

Even if Trump does run, the candidates who are forced to step aside may find value in the exercise anyway. Pence is only 61. Pompeo and Tim Scott are in their 50s. DeSantis, Cotton, Haley, and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem are even younger, in their 40s.

“A lot of these people have 20 years of potential viability for running for president,” Kaufmann said.

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