How can something that doesn’t yet exist get even smaller?
Speaking of the 2024 GOP presidential primary candidates’ field. The word “field” implies more than a single horse, doesn’t it? As everyone knows, thus far, it’s a one-man race, which would technically be impossible, but when it’s former president Donald Trump we’re talking about, anything goes. Trump remains so delightfully (frustratingly?) unpredictable that it’s entirely possible he could beat himself just by being himself, as he arguably did during the 2020 national election.
As the current legally sanctioned president – senile Joe “Let’s just finish the job!” Biden – took his annual limousine ride to Capitol Hill last night to deliver his second State of the Union address (and third speech to a joint session of Congress), the most notable thing about the Republican party’s potential presidential candidate field is its lack of substance. It’s not that Trump can’t fill a room, or a city, or a state, or a country, or a planet – all by himself – but it’s very difficult, even for Trump, to insist that intraparty enemies are everywhere when there’s only his ears to listen to him.
If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound? If a candidate shows up for a forum, and he’s the only one there to speak, is it still a debate?
It'll make for a pretty boring debate calendar if things remain the same until primary time. Incumbents sometimes/usually enjoy running unopposed for political offices, but typically not an open presidential slot. Someone, somewhere, almost always gets in just to demonstrate that the incumbent winner had some sort of opposition.
It’s going on three months since Trump announced his 2024 candidacy and it’s probably been about two years since the 45th president first expressed an interest in making a triumphant return to Washington, DC. In the intervening time there’ve been rumors and speculative reports concerning such and such “thinking about” or “considering” or “exploring” a challenge, but as of now, it’s almost more notable to talk about who isn’t running than those who might actually try to run the table.
How can that be? How can you make something that doesn’t yet exist even smaller? In a piece titled “The Cold Calculus Behind the Shrinking GOP Presidential Field”, liberal establishment media commentator Jonathan Martin wrote at Politico last week:
“[I]t’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.”
I know one -- my own state’s chief executive, Governor Glenn Youngkin. Virginia’s Youngkin has drawn terrific reviews thus far in his four-year term, but he’s barely crossed the one-year in office mark and the jury’s still out on whether he’s got the political gravitas to make the kind of conservative policy inroads in the Old Dominion that Ron DeSantis has forged down south.
When measured against DeSantis, every Republican governor would have an uphill slog to make themselves stand out. I don’t know how the Floridian picks his battles, but everything he does turns to gold. Ron’s very visible public spat with the wayward “woke” Walt Disney Company alone garnered him oodles of accolades from parents who were fed up with cartoon characters fretting over their own sexuality.
If DeSantis and the conservative cultural movement hadn’t spoken up – who knows, maybe Mickey Mouse would’ve ultimately confessed to Minnie Mouse that he was conflicted and might start pursuing Donald Duck – or maybe even Goofy. And in one of Disney’s more recently acquired franchises, the Star Wars conglomeration, perhaps Darth Vader would’ve turned to the “Good Side” because of his repressed feelings for Obi-Wan Kenobi. Or Emperor Palpatine would take off his hoodie and reveal his pink hair, earrings and a sinister plan that included transitioning.
Okay, back to reality…
Martin’s point is well taken, and on balance, I think he’s right. The pols he listed as potential candidates who haven’t yet gotten in, and it doesn’t look like they will, are: 2016-ers Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz; and current Republican senators Rick Scott, Tom Cotton, Joni Ernst and Josh Hawley, most of whom are in their 40’s and 50’s.
Then there are governors Chris Sununu (NH), Glenn Youngkin (VA), Brian Kemp (GA), Greg Abbott (TX) and former govs Larry Hogan (MD) and Chris Christie (NJ).
Of course, former South Carolina governor and Trump’s UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley, plans to make her own White House run public with an announcement next week. So, then there will be two official GOP candidates to pit against each other! Will Haley’s entrance solve the establishment media’s ultimate problem of a candidate-free “field” to go up against Trump and (most likely) DeSantis?
And then there’s fellow South Carolinian Sen. Tim Scott, who’s launching a “listening tour” (code for yeah, I’m really close to giving it a go).
The main problems being, for most of these possible candidates, a lack of national name recognition and fundraising to compete in the Trump/DeSantis upper tier realm. Even if any of them were to get in tomorrow, where’s the money going to come from? And, assuming they don’t have a large cash store on hand, where’s the big name and viability that’s going to bring in the life blood of politics?
I haven’t seen the most recent fundraising numbers but I figure Trump saved more than enough from his operation to sustain him due in part to his rather miserly approach to helping his own endorsed candidates in the 2022 federal midterm contests. Plus, there are still millions of rabid “only Trump” supporters left out there who would probably send him their last dollar to keep his hopes alive.
There are also millions of #NeverTrump holdovers from 2016 and 2020, but do these folks factor into a fundraising equation? Would they open their wallets to a Nikki Haley or a Liz Cheney just because they aren’t Trump? I think that’s a harder call to make.
With this knowledge, Trump probably figures, when the weather gets warmer and the people start paying closer attention to what’s going to happen at the end of next year, he will initiate another round of entertaining and substantive political rallies in the early states – and otherwise – with the intention of bumping up his poll numbers to a point where he’s the clear frontrunner again.
If it ever appears like he’s unbeatable – a hard scenario to envision at present – his “sure thing” status will open the floodgates to more donations flowing in. There no doubt is a healthy number of Republicans, and I even know some of ‘em, who’ve stated they would never consider voting for Trump again because of his lack of discipline and unshakable reputation as the only GOPer who senile Joe Biden (or whoever ends up on the Democrat ticket) could beat.
But once the 2024 general election choice is set and the either/or formula is in place, more and more conservatives would return to Trump. As I argued last week, his prospects would improve if he only would change his approach to the upcoming primary. Should Trump go out of his way to try and destroy an extremely popular and capable man like Ron DeSantis, he’ll likely seal his own fate as a two-time loser. Like it or not, Trump needs DeSantis. Not necessarily as a veep candidate, but someone who’s wholeheartedly behind the final GOP combo.
So what’s going to happen? Will the Republican party – and the deprived establishment media – have to endure until late summer or fall, or longer, with just Trump, Nikki Haley and one or two other pretenders with absolutely no shot to catch the kind of fire they’d require to bump off a juggernaut like Trump? Or will Haley’s move trigger some sort of “I gotta get in now or it’ll be too late” greasing of the candidate field skids?
Ron DeSantis himself will almost certainly hold off until the Florida legislature is done with its regular session (which runs through Cinco de Mayo this year) and see what’s happening with the rest of the possible hopefuls. It’s highly doubtful DeSantis would be scared away just by Trump alone, and if there are a half dozen or more declared candidates by then, it’d be like a signal from the political heavens to get in as quickly as he can formulate the words.
It remains to be seen how big – or small – the 2024 Republican presidential field will end up being. The top dog is already in, and he’s occupying most of the available oxygen in the GOP’s orbit. Trump’s the one who is waiting around to see who’ll make the next move, and until someone jumps in to challenge him, he’s got the conversation to himself. How long will it last?
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