The Cold Calculus Behind the Shrinking GOP Presidential Field


DANA POINT, Calif. — The last time the Republican National Committee held its winter meeting at the outset of an open presidential race, the state chairs and committee members arrived at the Hotel del Coronado to find three White House hopefuls and then shuttled over to the USS Midway to see a fourth prospect, Mitt Romney, give a speech teasing another run of his own.

Eight years after that gathering near San Diego, the RNC convened 70 miles up the Pacific at another California resort hotel last week for its winter meeting. This time, the party members were greeted by former President Donald Trump’s current top advisers in the lobby and bar, his 2016 campaign manager at their dinner, and, at the check-in table, stacks of the new memoir from Trump’s CIA director turned secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

The most prominent political figure there was someone from even further back in yesteryear: Sarah Palin, who posed for pictures from committee members, as confused as they were starstruck, before slipping into the meeting to cast a vote for RNC chair as a proxy for a friend.

Palin, though, is more likely to belt out another rendition of “Baby Got Back” on The Masked Singer than be the Republican standard bearer in 2024.

That the GOP primary is developing more slowly this election, a departure from the accelerated trajectory of recent nominating contests, is by now plain to see.

What’s even more striking three months after the midterms, though, is just how many Republicans are planning to sit out the White House race or remain on the fence about whether to run at all.

For all the preemptive Republican panic about a 2016 replay, and Trump claiming the nomination again thanks to a fractured opposition, the 2024 GOP field is shaping up to be smaller than expected.

“I would’ve told you last fall that there would be five senators in the race,” Ward Baker, a Republican strategist, told me, recalling a presentation he put together for lawmakers and donors projecting at least a double-digit sized group of contenders.

Now, Baker and other well-connected Republicans believe the ultimate field may be closer to seven or eight serious candidates with an even smaller number still standing by the time the first votes are cast in the kickoff states a year from now.

This is partly because of what those RNC members found in California last week.

Trump has already declared for a third consecutive run and his imprint was all over the meeting and remains all over the party. Until he declared his candidacy, the RNC was still covering some of his legal bills. And the race for party chair was mostly notable for the fact that neither major candidate was willing to acknowledge the culprit for a disappointing midterm, largely because the committee members would rather focus on nefarious claims about Democratic ballot harvesting than the role of Trump, the man Democrats have organized, mobilized and fundraised off of for six consecutive elections.

So, yes, a number of would-be Republican candidates this time see the party still in the former president’s grip, cast an eye at his preemptive attacks on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and say: who needs it, I’ll check back in 2028 when, one way or another, Trump is out of the picture.

However, it’s not only Trump who’s causing the Great Deep Freeze of 2023.

“They don’t have a Trump problem, they have a DeSantis problem,” explains Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist, of the potential field. “It’s going to be hard fighting for the other 60 to 70 percent of the vote [not going to Trump] when another guy could get 90 percent of it.”

DeSantis has, thanks to Covid and his ubiquity on right-wing media, become a “national conservative celebrity,” said Jennings, and the other would-be contenders are not likely to claim that status “by giving a bunch of speeches.”

Republican officeholders and their advisers see the polling, public and private, demonstrating just how formidable DeSantis already is with Republican primary voters, who typically wouldn’t even know the name of another state’s governor this early in a race.

That DeSantis has already burned in the conservative psyche was on display this week in Mississippi, where far-right State Sen. Chris McDaniel — whose proto-Trump 2014 primary nearly toppled then-Sen. Thad Cochran — opened a campaign for lieutenant governor by asking Republican voters: “Do you want a Trump or DeSantis, or do you want a Mitt Romney or a Liz Cheney?”

That an undeclared Florida governor is already receiving equal billing on the conservative seal of good housekeeping with a former president and worldwide household name explains a great deal about how this contest is getting underway.

Now, to be sure, it’s early and initialfrontrunners can, and often do, fall.

However, the history most on the minds of the Republicans considering the race, who are not named Trump or DeSantis, is what happens when there’s a bloody battle between top contenders. Spoiler: It augurs well for a third candidate.

This is what’s giving hope to the other Republicans most likely to run. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who’s ready to announce later this month, hopes voters will turn to a younger, female alternative when the going gets rough between Trump and DeSantis. And older figures like former Vice President Mike Pence and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson have told people they’re counting on a frontrunner food fight to create an appetite for a so-called adult in the race.

Where it gets complicated for the would-be third option candidates is when it comes to money. As in: how will they raise it?

And this question, as much as Trump’s grip or DeSantis’s strength as an alternative, is what’s giving (or what gave) a number of potential candidates pause.

Among the party’s top contributors, as well as with many small-dollar givers, there’s simply no appetite for a prolonged, fractured primary that could pave the way for another Trump nomination-by-plurality.

In this sense, the 2024 GOP donor is a lot like the 2020 Democratic primary electorate: They have one criteria and it’s who’s the safest bet to beat Trump. And the bundler bed-wetting about whether a larger field will merely open a path for Trump puts the onus on most every non-Trump candidate to demonstrate why they won’t just siphon votes from a single alternative.

“The mega donors are going to keep their checkbooks in the desk for a while because they saw what happened in ’16,” said Dave Carney, a longtime GOP consultant.

This will hurt Trump and DeSantis the least, in part because they’re already sitting on tens of millions of dollars that can likely be used for Super PACs and in part because they’re sure to be the most formidable online fundraisers.

“If he runs that takes a lot of the oxygen out for others,” Carney said of DeSantis.

The only other potential candidate even close to Trump and DeSantis on money is Sen. Tim Scott, who has over $21 million in his Senate account that he can transfer to a presidential campaign.

Then there’s the matter of what wing of the party is not being represented. Between Trump, DeSantis, Pence, Haley, Scott and an anti-Trump Republican to be named later, most of the modern GOP’s factions are covered (and speaking of that anti-Trump Republican wing — let’s call it the John Kasich lane for the television interview-to-votes-received ratio — I hear New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu is planning to meet with a group of well-connected Republicans about his plans when he’s in Washington later this month.)

Still, as the current president demonstrates, there’s real value to running and losing because it can double as a vice-presidential tryout.

But to a whole generation, and then some, of ambitious Republicans even that may not be compelling enough.

Consider the roster of who’s not running or at least uninclined to run, absent a shift in the fundamentals of the race.

From the 2016 field there’s former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Texas). Also on the sidelines from the Senate: Rick Scott (Fla.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Josh Hawley (Mo.). These are people, for the most part, in their 40s and 50s.

Among the governors, it’s possible that Sununu, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Georgia Gov, Brian Kemp, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and a pair of former governors, Maryland’s Larry Hogan and New Jersey’s Chris Christie, could all run. But it’s more likely they won’t.

To speak with members of the RNC is to understand why so many Republicans in the prime of their careers are, at the very least, uncertain about running for president.

It’s not that Trump’s lieutenants, Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles, were issuing be-with-us-or-else threats alongside some magnificent views of the Pacific or that Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s 2016 campaign chief, used her dinner speech to demand fealty to Trump.

Yet their presence and the refusal of the two candidates for chair to actually grapple with Trump’s impact on general election voters helps reinforce a sort of code of silence among most of the committee.

The most frequently cited fig leaf for not offering an opinion on the presidential race is that, as committee members, they’ve taken a vow of celibacy when it comes to primaries.

What they actually mean is they don’t want to be seen as telling their states’ voters what to do, in part because that could alienate Trump’s diehards, risking their own posts, and in part because Trump could weaponize any such intervention.

As Luis Fortuño, the former Puerto Rican governor and one of the few RNC members to speak candidly about the committee’s calculations, told me: “There’s a sensitivity to his base in the sense that 30 percent of them will be with him and we need everyone at the end of the day.”

There were, however, private indications of an eagerness to move on from Trump. While Ronna McDaniel easily won re-election, and with the tacit support of Trump, two candidates for other RNC offices he openly endorsed both lost.

In the treasurer’s race, Florida GOP chair Joe Gruters was defeated in part because he had Trump’s backing — and trumpeted the endorsement to committee members.

Gruters’s allies texted committee members the day of the vote with a siren emoji, an all-caps headline: “PRES. TRUMP ENDORSES JOE GRUTERS FOR RNC TREASURER” and a message from Trump about his “Complete and Total Endorsement.”

However, Gruters told me it was only supposed to go to about 20 Trump diehards on the committee and instead went to the entire 168-member party roster. That, according to Fortuno and other Trump skeptics who want a neutral leadership slate, caused a backlash on the floor and doomed Gruters’ candidacy.

Not that many potential presidential candidates were there to witness or even hear about what transpired.

The only likely 2024 contender to show up was Hutchinson, the former Arkansas governor, who’s a longshot but would bring perhaps the most sterling resume to the field. Now a certified member of the old guard, he was once a Reagan-appointed U.S. Attorney, House impeachment manager against Bill Clinton and DEA chief and top border official under George W. Bush before serving two terms in Little Rock.

Hutchinson wasn’t in the actual RNC program, but didn’t ask to be included. Unlike a number of once-hungry Republicans he’s still intent on testing the 2024 waters — he was the only potential candidate to show up for Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’s inauguration and legislative breakfast last month. He believes the case has to be made directly against the former president.

Citing a much-read Peggy Noonan column from December, Hutchinson told me flatly: “The only way to get rid of Donald Trump is to beat him.”

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