early and often

Why None of Trump’s 2016 Rivals Are Willing to Face Him Again

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Seventeen candidates ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. That’s a big field — big enough that the GOP had to devise a two-tier debate system to accommodate them all in the early going. And they were, overall, a pretty impressive bunch in terms of résumé power: four U.S. senators and one former senator; five sitting governors and four former governors; a major corporate executive; a world-class surgeon; and of course, a real-estate mogul turned reality-show celebrity.

This last candidate, of course, won the presidency that year, and lost it four years later — not that he has ever acknowledged that defeat. Now Donald Trump is attempting a comeback. There’s plenty of reason to think he could be vulnerable to an upset in the 2024 primaries, but remarkably, none of his 2016 rivals are running, despite the historic advantage retreads often enjoy. Repeat campaigns let candidates build on name ID, campaign investments, and voter regrets; the list of primary losers who eventually won their party’s presidential nomination includes Al Gore, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Joe Biden.

So why are none of the 16 Republicans Trump vanquished in 2016 coming at him again? Surely they all have different reasons for sitting out 2024, but the former candidates generally fall into four categories.

The Has-beens

One 2016 candidate has a very obvious reason for not running — former New York governor George Pataki is now 79, even older than Trump. Nobody’s looking to him to run another campaign. That’s also true of Jim Gilmore, who had served one term as Virginia governor back around the turn of the century. You could also argue that Rick Santorum (who ran and lost in 2012 and 2016), Rick Perry (a loser those same years), and Mike Huckabee (ditto in 2008 and 2016) have disqualified themselves as two-time presidential losers — though that description also fits current President Joe Biden.

The Utterly Trump-Demolished

Two candidates tried to knock out Trump with sheer disdain and failed so badly that their entire political career, not just their 2016 candidacy, was demolished. The first and most famous was initial 2016 front-runner Jeb Bush, who entered the campaign with huge amounts of cash, a big stack of endorsements, and the most famous name in Republican politics. Derided constantly by Trump as the “low-energy” scion of a failed political dynasty, Bush was helpless against the mogul and didn’t even stay in the race until his own state voted.

An even more ignoble end faced former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, the former college president, congressman, and two-term governor. Jindal chose to go medieval on Trump early in the 2016 cycle, calling him an “egomaniacal madman” who hadn’t “ever read the Bible … because he’s not in it.” All he accomplished with this jeremiad was to disqualify himself from any post in the Trump administration. This failed attack on Trump, combined with his own missteps in governing Louisiana with an eye on his presidential bid, deeply alienated voters everywhere. He dropped out of the 2016 campaign ten weeks before the first votes were cast.

The Utterly Trump-Demoralized

Four other 2016 Trump rivals, all senators, also tried to belittle him and cast him into the outer darkness as an unacceptable leader. But eventually Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz all came crawling back into Trump’s tent with much self-abasement, recognizing that future careers in Republican politics depended on it. Graham, who in 2015 called Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot” was one of the first politicians to endorse Trump’s 2024 comeback. Paul in early 2016 called Trump “a delusional narcissist and an orange-faced windbag,” saying, “a speck of dirt is way more qualified to be president.” He later became one of Trump’s most loyal defenders in Congress. Marco Rubio famously mocked Trump’s imputed penis size in a rare effort to match the mogul’s degraded style. He’s now all but marginalized politically in the home state he shares with the 45th president. And Ted Cruz, who held out longer than any of his senatorial peers against endorsing Trump in 2016, is now an entrenched Trump ally in the Senate. What would he do on the 2024 campaign trail: say he’s actually been wrong about Trump for all these years?

A fifth 2016 Trump rival, Ben Carson, seemed to dislike running for president in 2016 and doesn’t want to repeat the experience; he told the New York Times: “I didn’t particularly want to do it then … I certainly don’t want to do it now.” And all of these demoralized politicians, from “Truly Weird” Rand Paul to “Liddle” Marco Rubio to “Lyin’” Ted Cruz to “Sleepy” Ben Carson, had to put up with Trump’s distinctively dehumanizing nicknames.

The Self-Defenestrated

Two 2016 Trump rivals, John Kasich and Carly Fiorina, tossed themselves out of any future Republican presidential campaign by serving as Biden surrogates in 2020. They are now about as relevant in Republican presidential politics as fellow Trump critics Larry Hogan and Liz Cheney, who aren’t running in 2024 either despite being “mentioned” constantly.

So who does that leave among possible 2016 comeback kids? Theoretically, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie could surprise everyone by running. But he’s done nothing to build a campaign and seems happy to serve as a media know-it-all ready to criticize both parties.

The basic reality is that running against and losing to Donald Trump was a miserable, even humiliating experience for the candidates who went through it in 2016. None of them really want a second engagement, particularly if they can stay out of the fray in 2024 and hope to outlive the ex-president’s career at the peak of Republican politics.

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Why No Trump 2016 Rivals Are Willing to Face Him Again