Welcome to Trail Mix, a fun but nutritious snack for your election news diet. See something interesting on the trail? Email me at [email protected].
This week, we pull back the curtain on the delicate dance between Donald Trump and Vivek Ramaswamy. Plus, some exclusive polling from the first GOP debate, and we try to get to the bottom of the former president’s bizarre nickname for Asa Hutchinson.
Vivek Ramaswamy may have opened the first Republican presidential debate by ripping a famous line from Barack Obama, but it was his impression of a different former president that raised more eyebrows in GOP political circles.
From his constant interrupting and badgering of his opponents to his bombastic statements, Ramaswamy made himself the main character of Wednesday night’s debate in positively Trumpian fashion—right down to his frenetic open-palmed hand gestures.
The display may have made the 38-year old pharmaceutical millionaire, once a complete longshot, the unexpected darling of the debate. But in the eyes of several GOP campaign sources, it also brought Ramaswamy perilously close to a danger he’s managed to escape thus far: incurring the wrath of the former president.
“The minute he starts claiming to be the second coming of Trump, it’s over,” an early primary state GOP power broker told The Daily Beast, warning that Ramaswamy is pushing his luck by taking so many pages out of the Trump playbook.
So far, despite Trump’s reflexive disdain for anyone in the GOP who outshines the master, he and his campaign have not touched Ramaswamy. Trump even went out of his way to compliment him on Thursday night, telling Newsmax “I thought Vivek, as you say, Vivek, like cake, did very well.”
As The Daily Beast previously reported, the Trump team sees Ramaswamy’s pro-Trump posture—and his willingness to hammer rivals like Gov. Ron DeSantis—as a competitive advantage for them.
But Ramaswamy has also attacked Trump—his barbs have just gone mostly unnoticed. At a New Hampshire town hall in May, he not only said “Trump better get his butt on the debate stage,” but argued his failing to do so would effectively disqualify him from the presidency, according to audio of the event obtained by The Daily Beast.
“My view is, if you’re not willing to sit across the table from NBC News… or across the debate stage from me as the new outsider in this race, if you’re Donald Trump,” Ramaswamy said, “then I don’t think you’re fitted to be the person sitting across the table from [Chinese President] Xi Jinping.”
“The thing that now bothers me about Trump now is saying he’s not going to get on the debate stage,” Ramaswamy continued. “That’s not the Donald Trump of 2015. Donald Trump in 2015 is standing up to the establishment. We need to be a party… that says we embrace free speech and open debate.”
The audio reveals a version of Ramaswamy that could elicit a very different response from Trump and his supporters. “This isn’t the only debate,” a Ramaswamy campaign spokesperson said in response to the audio. “There will be others.”
After watching the display in Milwaukee on Wednesday, Republicans on both the pro-Trump and anti-Trump sides of the party saw a candidate who is reaching the limits of his balancing act as a spoiler for the Trump campaign without presenting himself as “the second coming of Trump.”
“Trump surrogates will go in on him once he starts encroaching on Trump’s territory,” the early primary state operative said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about conversations with Trump allies and rival campaigns.
“He was careful last night. When he’s stumping, he will always use the phrase, ‘I am the new version of Trump.’ He didn’t do that on stage last night,” they said. “And the reason he didn’t is because Trump would be up his ass so fast, Vivek wouldn’t know what hit him.”
It’s not hard to imagine Trump—whose pettiness has led him to discard many a former ally—turning on Ramaswamy if he gets too comfortable as the GOP’s new star.
For now, however, Trump allies seem content to let Ramaswamy run wild, so long as he’s not going after the once and future GOP frontrunner.
“Vivek gets it,” a Trump adviser told The Daily Beast, complimenting the candidate’s ability to “defend Trump” during the debate and amplify the populist messaging behind the MAGA movement.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, the Ramaswamy campaign insisted “Vivek deeply respects Trump.” “He’s not running against any one man,” a spokesperson said. “He’s running for the country.”
In a field filled with current and former governors, a U.S. senator, and a former vice president, Ramaswamy’s ascension to the top rung of challengers has been one of the few surprising developments in an otherwise consistently non-competitive primary.
Earlier this year, Ramaswamy entered the race as an unknown, but he slowly built up a consistent presence on Fox News, went all over the podcast circuit, blitzed local media outlets in his early primary state stops, and held interviews with just about anyone else who would ask.
But his telegenic appeal, vocal defenses of Trump, and his positions—extreme even by the standards of the contemporary GOP—won him fans. He has also won plenty of enemies: In a debate where DeSantis was expected to be the punching bag, Ramaswamy was attacked more than any other candidate on stage.
Former Gov. Nikki Haley best demonstrated the new state of play when she took a question from the moderators on Ukraine—which teed her up for an attack on DeSantis—and took the opportunity to hammer Ramaswamy on his lack of foreign policy credentials.
If anything, in the eyes of Trump’s allies, Ramaswamy’s willingness to throw punches at MAGA enemies like Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence solidified his status as a leading vice-presidential pick for Trump, should he win the nomination.
“Ramaswamy was not really performing for the American public for an introduction, but for Donald Trump,” a Trump confidant said. “He had an audience of one last night.”
A Republican lawmaker close to Trump, meanwhile, told The Daily Beast they did not view Ramaswamy as a real threat. “Great consideration for VP,” they said.
But the benefits that Ramaswamy brings to the race for Trump are hard to ignore. A GOP strategist explained that “he’s taking votes from Ron, taking focus and attacks off Trump, and saying nice things. The polling also seems to show Trump maintains support, even as Vivek surges up a bit.”
The case of a Trumpworld fixture who may serve as a connection between the former president and Ramaswamy’s camp—the Trump 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski—helps to illustrate the potentially fraught dynamic between the two sides.
In May, Politico reported Lewandowski spoke with a Ramaswamy-aligned super PAC about joining their ranks. Lewandowski disputed the Politico story’s accuracy in a text message to The Daily Beast—but would not comment on whether he is currently advising Ramaswamy.
Regardless of who may be on his current client list, Lewandowski remains in contact with the former president, according to the Trump confidant who spoke with The Daily Beast.
“If you don’t think that he’s talking to Donald Trump, you’re crazy,” they said. “And Ramaswamy cannot be that stupid or naive to believe that hiring Trump’s former campaign manager and chief adviser, and someone he still likes, can publicly switch jerseys without certain conditions being met.”
“President Trump is a friend of mine, and I will continue to speak with him regularly regardless of who else runs for President,” Lewandowski told The Daily Beast.
On Thursday alone, Lewandowski shared both positive and negative views of Ramaswamy’s debate performance on social media.
In one post, he supported Ramaswamy’s argument about another candidate being “bought and paid for” by corporate interests. However, Lewandowski also wondered why Ramaswamy was even “running for President AGAINST the Greatest President of the 21st Century?” (Ramaswamy declared at the debate that Trump was the greatest president of the century.)
Should Ramaswamy either surge in the polls or make a maneuver that appears to come at Trump’s expense, Lewandowski would “come at him like nobody’s business,” the early primary state Republican operative said.
While Ramaswamy seems to enjoy the best of both worlds for now, some GOP players saw in his debate performance the seeds of his ultimate demise—probably at Trump’s hands.
“Vivek slit his throat on stage last night,” the early state Republican operative said. “He just doesn’t know it yet.”
The day after the GOP debate, the progressive polling shop Data For Progress took a pulse check of 1,169 likely voters. They exclusively shared some notable findings on the debate and key issues with Trail Mix.
Only 28 percent of Republicans said they watched the debate live. Another 35 percent of Republicans said they didn’t watch, but caught clips or news coverage, while 37 percent of GOP voters said they tuned out entirely.
Republicans were split on Trump’s absence from the debate, with 38 percent saying he should have participated, while 45 percent supported his decision to skip.
On the policy front, a few findings from the DFP poll stood out.
A slight majority of Republicans said they support addressing climate change in some form, with 21 percent saying they strongly support countering climate change. (Candidates were asked about climate change at the debate.)
Only 37 percent of voters support a 15-week abortion ban, far from the unattributed 70 percent figure Pence raised at the debate. Forty-eight percent of voters said they oppose a 15 week ban, while 16 percent said they didn’t know.
Fifty-three percent of respondents oppose deploying U.S. troops to the Mexico border to fight drug cartels, as several GOP candidates supported doing. Only 15 percent said they strongly support it, topping out at 25 percent support among Republicans.
Off The Beaten Path
Hunter not hunted. Ahead of the GOP debate, pundits and press assumed the candidates would focus on a favorite topic onstage. “Expect to Hear a Lot About Hunter Biden in GOP Debate,” read a headline from The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.
It seemed a safe bet. Republicans from the campaign trail to Capitol Hill are obsessed with talking about the president’s son’s foreign business activity and his messy personal life. Rep. James Comer (R-KY), the lawmaker leading the Hunter investigations, even traveled to Milwaukee, where he reportedly helped to moderate a closed-door panel for RNC members on the status of the probes before the big event.
But over two hours of debate, the candidates barely talked about Hunter at all. Just two mentioned him: DeSantis, who made a passing dig at Hunter’s lucrative art sales while protesting Americans’ struggles to keep up with higher costs. And Chris Christie hit the plea deal federal prosecutors attempted to make with Hunter, saying if he were president, Hunter would “go to jail for 10 years.”
No one else mentioned the president’s son directly or indirectly. The fact that the GOP field shirked from Hunter talk, on the night with their biggest and broadest platform, may indicate their calculation that the complicated story lines are not such an obvious political slam dunk. Of course, Trump himself has not, and likely will not, stopped talking about Hunter in his many interviews and social media posts.
Juicing DeStats. While Fox News moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum had ample follow-up questions for candidates at several points during the debate, DeSantis got away with a sleight of hand when he touted Florida’s crime statistics.
On campaign trail, the governor often declares crime is at “a 50-year low” in Florida, and he rolled out the set piece once again in Milwaukee. What DeSantis doesn’t mention in that victory lap line is that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement relied on summary-level crime data from less than 60 percent of police agencies in the state, according to a series of reports from the Marshall Project’s Weihua Li.
DeSantis has put “hollowed out cities” and depictions of rampant violent crime at the center of his rhetoric even before running for president, despite the national crime rate peaking in 1991, with an increase in 2020 still 60 percent below the peak.
The case of Asa. Even Trump’s own campaign doesn’t exactly know what he means with his new nickname for Arkansas’ former governor, Asa Hutchinson, whom Trump keeps calling “Aida.” Trump’s own explanation raises more questions than answers. In June, he told Sean Hannity, “I gave him a little name for some reasons, certain reasons. This guy, nobody knows who the hell he is.”
Some GOP sources told The Daily Beast they assume the joke is that Trump is using a woman’s name, possibly Ada, but no one is entirely sure. The Trump campaign did not return a request for comment on the origin of the nickname.
Hutchinson has criticized Trump’s actions around the 2020 election and has been one of the lone voices in the primary field to speak out against the party’s anti-transgender rhetoric. He also vetoed a bill that would have banned gender affirming care in Arkansas, which his successor, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, tried implementing before a federal judge ruled the law was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment.
Mugshot Trump. A historic day in Atlanta ended with Donald Trump becoming the first US president to have his mugshot taken. The Daily Beast’s Jose Pagliery was all over it.
Missed the debate? If you’re reading this, probably not, but The Daily Beast’s Sam Brodey zoomed out in his recap of the big night without Trump.
Truther. The Ramaswamy campaign bluffed and tried to claim the candidate didn’t say what he told The Atlantic’s John Hendrickson about September 11. The magazine had the receipts.
Should’ve RN seen it coming. RNC officials knew Trump was likely to skip the first debate going back more than a year, and the committee charged with planning the night even briefly entertained the idea of banning him from future ones, Trail Mix’s own Jake Lahut scooped.
Notes from Cap. NBA icon and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Kareem Abdul-Jabbar penned a scorecard for The Daily Beast on each of the GOP candidates from the debate. He wasn’t impressed with their shot selection.