The Elephant in the Room

Republicans carefully run for president, not knowing if the last one will, too.

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

One night in June, hundreds of Republicans gathered in suburban Des Moines, Iowa, for two traditions: raising money for their party and listening to a presidential hopeful, despite it being more than two years from the first-in-the-nation caucus. The guest this time was Nikki Haley, who offered all the crowd plenty of red meat to pair with their rubber chicken.

Donald Trump’s former U.N. ambassador railed against Joe Biden’s failures, deplored critical race theory, and told a story that “she had to tell” the crowd about how Trump used his quirky personality to “put America First” at the United Nations. She had the crowd roaring with laughter about how, in her telling, Trump had surprisingly advanced diplomacy by using the epithet “little rocket man” to describe Kim Jong Un in his first address to the U.N. General Assembly.

Haley is already “making a serious play for Iowa,” according to one Republican operative based in the state and building an “aggressive schedule” by another Republican in the state. Such an early start is not unusual, but the pace is. “2021 has been like and feels like what you’d expect 2023 to be,” said Jeff Kaufmann, the chair of the Republican Party of Iowa.

But there’s something unusual about the invisible primary this time: the lurking presence of Trump. Potential candidates have to navigate not just the potential for him to run again for the Republican nomination in 2024, but the risk of doing anything to raise the ire of the South Florida retiree.

It already may be too late for Haley. After serving in Trump’s administration, she briefly separated herself from the former president and directly criticized him at an RNC meeting the day after the attack on the Capitol. “His actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history,” she told the crowd of Republican loyalists. She has since walked her criticism back though and has gone as far as to say that she would not run if Trump decided on a third presidential bid. She’s “pissed off a lot of Trump people,” as one Republican put it. Several others went so far as to use the most toxic analogy available in the current GOP for her prospective candidacy: “She just screams Jeb!

The specter of Trump doesn’t just loom over the former South Carolina governor’s 2024 hopes. In conversations with over a dozen Republican activists and operatives, both in early states and nationally, everyone thought that there was a chance that the former president could run again and everyone had their own odds. Some thought it was unlikely, some thought it was likely but the one thing everyone agreed upon is that Trump’s final decision was impossible to predict and to plan for. One Republican close to a potential 2024 candidate compared it to “being hit by a meteor. There’s nothing you can do to control that.”

Even out of office and without a Twitter account, Trump has kept himself in the center of Republican politics. He has endorsed candidates in this year’s special elections and weighed in on infrastructure legislation from his exile in Mar-a-Lago. Although Trump has yet to appear in Iowa, his super-PAC recently hired two prominent Iowa Republican operatives and he recently spoke to Kaufmann, who announced their call on Twitter.

Still, it’s not certain how deep Trump’s support would be in a Republican primary. “Even the base that loves Trump is not so sure he should run,” said Bob Vander Plaats, an influential activist in the state who backed Ted Cruz in 2016. The prominent social conservative leader noted there are electability concerns around the former president who has lost the popular vote twice. “I don’t know that he’s going to be able to win,” said Vander Plaats. “He’ll be able to win the primary but will he win the general? And the calculation of so many of the base is that we love what President Trump has done … but we need to win.”

Another operative said “people want to see who else is running,” and that while voters “may go back to Trump, it’s definitely anyone’s game” at this point. Another operative acknowledged that Trump would start off as “the dominant favorite” in Iowa if he got in the race but that was by no means settled. “People are showing up and listening to other potential candidates and they are going to keep coming out. There is a lot of fertile ground for a Republican not named Trump.”

One initial way to view the primary electorate was offered by John Brabender, a veteran national Republican strategist: “The group of people who believe wholeheartedly in the Trump agenda and thought his style and manner was exactly what we needed to have happen, versus the group that was wholeheartedly in support with his agenda but uncomfortable with his style and manner.” He compared this to the difference between “people who simply purchase a product and those who are loyal to a brand.”

It’s a delicate line to walk for Republicans. Perhaps the presidential hopeful who has to be the most careful doing so is Mike Pence. Last month, the former vice-president visited Iowa, where he flipped hamburgers at a fundraiser for a socially conservative congressman. He didn’t call himself a candidate, but repeatedly touted the policy accomplishments of the Trump administration while rarely mentioning the name of the person in charge of that administration.

While it’s unclear how many Republicans would risk a challenge against the former president, they are lining up by the dozen for a potential open primary. Kauffman boasted about the number of 2024 hopefuls who had appeared in the state, which already includes (in alphabetical order): Tom Cotton, Haley, Kristi Noem, Pence, Mike Pompeo, Rick Scott, and Tim Scott. Ted Cruz, Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, Marco Rubio, and Marjorie Taylor Greene are also scheduled to show up in the coming weeks. In addition, Kauffman said, other hopefuls, whom he declined to name, are sniffing around the Hawkeye State.

“Tom Cotton will literally come for any event you want him to,” one Republican said. Cotton was particularly praised for his efforts on the ground, with one operative noting that “he’s building personal relationships not just in Iowa but elsewhere.” The question is whether the somber Arkansan described as “boring” by one operative would resonate with Republican voters after a half-decade of the Trump show. By contrast, Pompeo has been praised for his ability to connect with both MAGA and Establishment voters and for showing up in Iowa repeatedly.

One of the great looming questions in a primary without Trump is the role of Ted Cruz. The Texas senator won Iowa in 2016, but Iowans have rarely rewarded repeat candidates. Aside from his five years in the headlines where Cruz has taken every position under the sun on Trump — from telling Republicans to “vote their conscience” in 2016 to voting to overturn the results of the 2020 election on January 6 — Cruz has the advantage and disadvantage of being a known quantity in the state. While the Texan provokes ire from some dating back to his opposition to ethanol subsidies in America’s corn capital in 2016, he also has the best email list and organization in the party of anyone not named Trump.

However, the clear favorite right now for Trump’s mantle right now has yet to show up, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida. Republicans from across the party kvelled over DeSantis, who has consistently been second only to Trump in polling of Republican primary voters so far. Between his handling of COVID, his sparring with reporters, and his eagerness to embrace pet right-wing causes like critical race theory and trans athletes in school sports, DeSantis has become a star on the right and a fixture on Fox News. “The most popular presidential hopeful among the activist class,” said one plugged-in Iowa Republican.

While Republicans admired the “bulldog with a filter,” they haven’t gotten to see him in person. With a re-election bid coming up in the perpetually purple state of Florida and the ever-watchful eye of Trump upon him, DeSantis has made clear that he is not traveling to early states in the foreseeable future. And the necessity for him to travel is lessened by his constant national exposure. As another candidate proved in 2016, visiting a Pizza Ranch in Fort Dodge may not be anywhere near as important in a Republican presidential primary as doing a TV hit on Fox & Friends. “If Ron DeSantis decides to get in, he’s going to be the front-runner right away,” said Vander Plaats. That is if another Florida man doesn’t.

The Elephant in the Room