It wasn’t long ago that many Republicans believed the party might finally be ready to move past former President Donald Trump. Nikki Haley was running for president. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was embarking on a book tour, and a raft of other prominent GOPers were visiting early primary states.
But in the span of a week, the script for the earliest stages of the 2024 primary was written; and once again Trump was the axis around which it all turned.
“It’s Groundhog Day,” said Mike Madrid, the Republican strategist who was a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.
While Trump’s approval ratings may be slipping and Republican voters tell pollsters they are willing to look elsewhere, a series of recent developments has kept the party fixated on him and the scandals that defined his time and office. Washington D.C. and the largest conservative news outlet have spent days reliving the Jan. 6 riot. And the specter of a Trump indictment in New York portends an early primary season spent relitigating his record.
“There’s no question he’s the giant in the middle of the room, and other people will define themselves in comparison to him,” said Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster.
In recent days, Trump said he will “absolutely” stay in the race if he is indicted and that it would likely “enhance my numbers.” Far from distancing himself from the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 — a general election liability with independents and pro-democracy Republicans — Trump has suggested pardoning some Jan. 6 defendants and recently collaborated on a song with some of them. More traditionalist Republicans winced at that — and again when Fox’s Tucker Carlson aired footage downplaying violence at the Capitol.
“Just reliving the worst moment of the Trump presidency is probably not exactly what the doctor ordered for 2024,” Ayres said.
For any other presidential candidate or any down-ballot Republican next year, said one Republican strategist granted anonymity to discuss the dynamics of the campaign frankly, the “huge risk” is that “we have to talk about Jan. 6 on the campaign trail.”
“God, I don’t want to be on this side of that issue,” he said.
The primary was always going to be, first and foremost, about the former president — who remains, despite his foibles, the frontrunner in the 2024 field. But after a less-than-red-wave midterm and the first few lackluster weeks of Trump’s campaign, it appeared he might not singularly set the terms of the debate. It was time for a “new generation,” Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, said when she launched her campaign. Republicans, said New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu — a potential candidate — would not choose “yesterday’s leadership.”
The problem for Republicans is that Trump is making it impossible to run anything other than yesterday’s campaign.
In Washington, Carlson’s relitigating of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol on Fox News forced Republicans to answer new batteries of questions about an event they’d been eager to forget — reminiscent of the Trump tweets they’d been forced, awkwardly, to respond to throughout his term. It sparked intraparty debates about whether the insurrection had, in fact, been essentially peaceful and led to accusations that those in the party who called it a dark day were ideological squishes.
Then came news that Trump had been invited to testify before a New York grand jury investigating his involvement in hush money payments during the 2016 campaign, raising the prospect of a bombshell criminal case that would again keep Trump as a central litmus test for the party: would fellow Republicans decry the prosecution or turn on the former president?
“Ignore it, deflect it all you want,” said Mike Noble, the chief of research and managing partner at the Arizona-based polling firm OH Predictive Insights. “This is, right now, going to be the Trump show … The oxygen is just going to be sucked out of the room focusing on Trump.”
The effects were already evident in the nascent campaign. In announcing last week that he would not run for president, former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan pointed to Trump, saying he feared a “pile up” of low-polling candidates preventing an alternative candidate from “rising up.”
Vivek Ramaswamy — the wealthy biotech entrepreneur and longshot candidate — went the opposite way, diving right into Trump’s orbit. By mid-week, he was calling for “due process” for those arrested in the Jan. 6 riot.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, meantime, took his biggest swing yet at Trump, telling a crowd at the Gridiron dinner on Saturday that “history will hold Donald Trump accountable for Jan. 6.”
Even DeSantis, who has largely sidestepped the former president, appears unlikely to avoid him for long. His visit on Friday to Iowa came with Trump right over his shoulder, with Trump set to follow DeSantis into the first-in-the-nation caucus state on Monday.
And then there are the potential candidates who, by virtue of their resumes, are already inextricably tied to Trump. Haley, Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were all part of his administration.
“It feels like candidates are trying to break away from talking about Trump, but keep getting pulled back in,” said Bob Heckman, a Republican strategist who has worked on nine presidential campaigns. “That’s all good for Trump for two reasons. One, it keeps him relevant, and two, I think it’s what he wants. He wants to be the center of attention.”
Trump’s likely to stay there, too, as multi-candidate events pick up this spring — followed by debates in which Republicans will be pressed for commentary on the riot and other elements of his tenure.
Already, lanes in the GOP primary are constricting in ways that nod to Trump’s strength, with Hogan’s announcement serving as a tacit acknowledgement of the lack of room for any outspoken Trump critic. Former Rep. Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who became the GOP’s most prominent antagonist of Trump, has taken an appointment as a professor of practice at University of Virginia. Former Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who was one of seven Republican senators to vote to convict Trump during his second impeachment trial, became a president … of the University of Florida.
In the GOP primary, said former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh — who unsuccessfully challenged Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2020 — “It’s going to be Trump, or it’s going to be the Trumpiest son-of-a-bitch out there.”
“That,” he added, “is what this base wants.”
In a normal reelection year for a sitting president, the opposition party would spend its primary at least partly focused on the incumbent — setting up a referendum on President Joe Biden in the fall. But as it was in the midterms in 2022 and, before that — in his own, failed, reelection campaign — the primary is unfolding as a referendum instead on Trump. Noble called it “the sequel, … 100 percent” about Trump. And his opponents, it appears, can do very little about it.
“The press likes him. He’s the story, he’s conflict,” said Beth Miller, a longtime Republican strategist. “How do you not continue to write about him, since all of those issues are still at the forefront.”
It’s possible, if DeSantis or some other Republican makes the primary competitive, that the singular focus on Trump will fade. Significant differences may arise between candidates on immigration, Social Security or any number of other issues.
It’s also possible some other candidate will get in, appealing to what former Republican New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman called voters “who have been dissatisfied, who have moved to the independent column” and who “might come back if they saw a Republican they thought was viable and sane and a little more to the center.”
Asked if any names came to mind, however, she said, “No, not right now.”